Christmas Holly

Contributor: Leonie Twentyman Jones.

Holly, with its distinctive shiny dark-green spikey leaves and gorgeous scarlet berries, is one of the plants most associated with Christmas.  In Western Europe the tradition of decorating homes with Holly predated Christianity. It was probably begun by the druids of ancient Britain and France, who believed that bringing branches of Holly into their homes gave refuge to the spirits of the forest during the harsh winters, while the spiny leaves kept evil spirits away. The Romans sent Holly branches with gifts to celebrate the December winter solstice festival of Saturnalia held in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture and grape growing. In the Western Christian culture, English Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is sometimes called Christ’s thorn, as the sharp leaves recall the crown of thorns worn by Jesus, and the red berries the drops of blood that were shed for salvation.

Ilex mitis in Harold Porter
Ilex mitis in Harold Porter – Abu Shawka


Cape holly in Kirstenbosch
Cape holly in Kirstenbosch – H. Robertson

While we are busy buying artificial sprigs of Holly to decorate our homes and Christmas wrapping paper featuring more sprigs of Holly, it is interesting to know that we have our own Cape or African holly (Ilex mitis) growing on our doorstep in the Knysna forests. This evergreen tree also has shiny dark-green leaves with pointed tips and sometimes slightly toothed edges, and also has bright red berries which appear in autumn. So not in time for a southern hemisphere Christmas, but nevertheless enjoyed by our birds before the onset of winter. Apparently the Knysna elephants found the leaves particularly appetising and the early Knysna woodcutters used the leaves to make a lather to wash themselves in the forest streams. The tree is not suitable for the average suburban garden as it grows to a height of 10-25 metres. One would need to grow at least two trees together as the male and female flowers appear on separate trees. So possibly it is best left to its natural habitat where it grows on the banks of rivers and streams in woods and forests. The light-coloured wood makes good durable furniture and was once in demand for making the heels of ladies shoes.

‘The Holly and the Ivy

When they are both full grown

Of all the trees that are in the wood

The Holly bears the crown.’