A Female Holly Tree (Ilex aquifolium) with trademark berries

A Female Holly Tree (Ilex aquifolium) with trademark berries

As the winter solstice approaches, the deciduous trees are bare.  My back yard is a desolation of fallen leaves, dead chrysanthemums, and scraggly ornamental cabbages.  Yet in the winter ruins of the garden, one tree glistens with color: its shiny dark green leaves and gorgeous red berries have made it an emblem of the season since time immemorial.  The tree is Ilex aquifolium, also known as the common holly (or English holly).  The small trees grow in the understory of oak and beech forests of Europe and western Asia where they can grow up to 25 meters (75 feet) tall and live for half a millennium (although most specimens are much smaller and do not live so long).  Hollies are famous not just for their robust good looks but also for their sharpened leaves which literally make them a pain to care for.  The wood is a lovely ivory color and is fine for carving and tooling (in fact Harry Potter’s wand was made of holly wood in the popular children’s fantasy novels).

A male holly tree (Ilex aquifolium) with flowers

A male holly tree (Ilex aquifolium) with flowers

Holly was long worshiped by Celts and Vikings before its winter hardiness and blood-red berries made it emblematic for the resurrection of Christ.  Yet even before there were any people in Europe the holly was a mainstay of the great laurel forests of Cenozoic Europe. The genus ilex is the sole remaining genus of the family Aquifoliaceae which were incredibly successful in the hot wet climates of the Eocene and Oligocene.  The semi-tropical forests began to die out during the great dry period of the Pliocene and were almost entirely finished off by the Pleistocene Ice Ages, yet the holly survived and adapted as the other plants vanished.  Today there are nearly 500 species of holly. In addition to the well-known common holly which is so very emblematic of Christmastime, there are tropical and subtropical hollies growing around the world.  There are hollies which are evergreen and hollies which are deciduous. Even if they are not as common as they were when the Earth was hotter and wetter, they are one of the great success stories among flowering plants.

A Female Holly Tree (photo allegedly by "Chase Wood")

A Female Holly Tree (photo allegedly by “Chase Wood”)