Stories from the Barn

A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands

The Holly Tree in the British Woodlands

Holly woodland

The Holly tree is one of the most common trees in British woodlands.

Advent Calendar 3

It’s November and the gloomiest and wettest of walks is lifted by the sight of the holly tree. It’s presence is there bringing joy and the knowledge that Christmas is coming. The Christmas period is intrinsically linked with the Holly tree. The fact we still bring it into our homes at this time of year shows the power that links us to nature and folk stories.

The holly tree in the woodland.

Even though it is one of Britain’s most common trees, we often overlook it in the woodland. The Holly tree is a broad leafed evergreen tree that often forms the under storey in our oak woodlands. When given the space it can grow to over 20m but we more often see a straggly intertwined specimen. Maybe this is why it tends to get overlooked. However when the holly produces it’s berries then it makes the woodland sing and this year is a berry year and the holly boughs are heavy with the red fruit.

The Holly Tree

The Holly tree is the under storey in an Oak woodland.

We all know the Holly tree for its dark shiny and spikey leaves. However take a closer look and you will see the higher up the tree the leaves are the the fewer spines they have. The male leaves are more prickly than the female but it is the female trees that bear the fruit. It makes sense therefore for the female leaves to have fewer spines because the plant wants its seeds to be eaten by animals so it makes it a bit easier for that to happen.

Holly blooms between May and August, with clusters of small white star-like flowers which have a sweet talcum powder smell which attracts lots of pollinators.

Holly tree blossom

Sweet smelling Holly Tree blossom.

The first berries appear in September and they are a very important larder for our song birds. A field hedgerow full of holly is likely to attract the Sky Larks and the visiting Field Fares love the berries. A Mistle Thrush can become very territorial over its holly tree as well. Once the first frosts have been the berries become softer and then the feast really begins.

The Holly tree butterfly feeds on holly tree flower buds in the Spring.

Holly tree

The berries are a fabulous Winter food source for birds

How useful is Holly tree wood?

The Holly was one of the most useful of all our native trees. Our ancestors planted large stands of holly tree and in some of our ancient woodlands such as the New Forest these Holly ‘Holms’ or ‘Hollins’ can still be seen.

  • The leaves are full of calories and were used to feed cattle when hay was scarce or Winters hard.
  • The Holly tree stands offered shelter to animals and could be pollarded to provide feed.
  • Holly was added to the hedgerow as a impenetrable and durable barrier, though it grows slowly.
  • The wood produces a hot fire and bundles for lighting faggots.
  • The wood is hard and white, accepting a dye very well and so was used for wood inlays and ebony substitute.
  • It can be easily turned on a lathe and so is used for making handles and small objects such as door knobs.
  • Wood printing blocks were also made from Holly.

Holly decoration

The holly tree and mythology.

There are many stories around the Holly tree. The very nature of it being an evergreen tree, alive with bright red berries when Winter is at its cruelest must have imbibed it with great powers in the eyes of our ancestors.

When the darkest part of the year arrived at the Winter Solstice, the Druids brought Holly into their homes. They believed that the sun would never forsake the Holly. Of course they were correct and the lengthening days proved this. The Winters of our ancestors must have been incredibly tough. To survive the dark and cold to Spring must have been seen as a victory of light over dark.

The Celts said the Holly King was said to rule over the half of the year from the summer to the winter solstice. The Oak King then defeated the Holly King to rule through the light of Spring until the Summer Solstice. These nature gods were incorporated into the Mummers plays. Was he the original ‘Green Man’ whose face appears in our churches? Christians believed the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head was a holly wreath and the berries drops of Christ’s blood.

Holly was also brought into the house to protect the household from the fairies who came indoors to shelter from the Winter. They would be able to shelter amongst the spiny leaves safe from human interference.

The customs of pagan times were gradually assimilated into the Christian religion. The pagan Yuletide Solstice was still celebrated within the Christmas celebration. Pagan beliefs were never far away and Holly was still a very important part of the celebration.

Holly woodland

Holly trees growing in a mature mixed woodland

Don’t cut down the Holly tree.

The Holly was thought to have protective properties and so it was bad luck to cut down a whole tree. In the hedgerow the Holly tree was frequently left uncut. Firstly it stopped the witches running along the tops of the hedges. It also provided a stand out point in the hedgerow so that the farmer could establish a line of sight for ploughing.

Trees could be pollarded to provide cattle fodder and boughs could be cut for the Winter festivals. Holly standard trees are not often seen as the wood is not a strong timber. It has more use in it’s pollarded form. That of course saves all the problems of all that bad luck for the person who would have to cut it down.

Although the felling of whole trees was said to bring bad luck, taking boughs for decoration, and the coppicing of trees to provide winter fodder, was allowed.

So deck your halls with boughs of Holly.

Buy your Holly from a sustainable source. Remember the birds that rely on it for a vital Winter food source. Try not to go collecting it from the hedgerows. Make it into a wreath as our Medieval forbears did. Hang it on your door to keep mischievous spirits away. However be sure to remove it by Twelfth Night or suffer great misfortune.