Saturday 15 June
Common holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Common holly fact file
- Find out more
- Print factsheet
Common holly description
With its bright red berries (found only on female plants), and shiny evergreen leaves, the native holly tree (Ilex aquifolium) has been a symbol of midwinter festivals since pre-Christian times (3). The common holly grows as a shrub or tree, and has a narrow, conical crown and smooth silver-greyish bark (2). The fragrant male and female flowers are found on separate trees; they occur in clusters, and are white in colour (2). The dark green holly leaves are spiny, and have a waxy texture (4).
- Height: up to 10 m (2)
Common holly biology
Flowering occurs in May and June (2). Holly berries are a very important source of food for birds during winter (4), and birds assist in the dispersal of holly berries away from the parent tree (3). Holly may also spread by vegetative reproduction, by 'runners'; furthermore, the tips of branches that touch the ground may take root, forming a bower around the trunk of the tree, which may be used by animals (and children) as a shelter (3).
Unsurprisingly there is a rich wealth of folklore and custom surrounding the holly tree (3); the amount of berries produced is used as a means of divining whether there will be a harsh winter. A widespread and firmly held belief around Britain is that it is extremely bad luck to cut down a whole holly tree, although somewhat paradoxically, it is permitted to cut branches to bring into the house during winter (3). This belief has often led to hollies being retained even when the entire hedge to which they once belonged was destroyed. In many farming areas, holly has been given to livestock as winter browse, and this practice continues today. Holly wood was used to make horsewhips for many years, as it was thought to have 'power over horses'. It was also believed to provide protection against fire (3). The most well-known holly-custom, however, is bringing boughs into the house in winter. Originally, holly was a fertility symbol because of the retention of the berries and shiny foliage throughout winter. It was also thought to protect a house from witchcraft and goblins. The pagan tradition of bringing holly indoors was accepted by Christianity; the spines of the leaves symbolising the crown of thorns, and the red berries representing the blood of Christ (3).Top
Common holly range
The common holly is widespread and common throughout Britain. The holly is also widespread elsewhere, occurring throughout western and southern Europe and West Asia (2).Top
Common holly habitat
As the holly is very shade-tolerant it is able to live as an understory species in woodlands where other trees cannot survive (4); it is especially associated with beech and oak woodlands (2). Pure holly woods are unique to Britain, and are ecologically equivalent to the evergreen cloud forests of South America and China (3).Top
Common holly status
The common holly has yet to be assessed by the IUCN.Top
Common holly threats
There are no known threats to the common holly.Top
Common holly conservation
As the holly is common and widespread, conservation action is not currently considered necessary.Top
Find out more
For more on the wealth of folklore and tradition centred on the common holly, see:
- Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey. Published by Sinclair-Stevenson, London.
For more on British trees see:Top
This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
- Vegetative reproduction
- Type of asexual reproduction (reproduction without recombination of genetic material) that results in the propagation of plants using only the vegetative tissues such as leaves or stems. The resulting plant is genetically identical to the original plant. A well-known example of this is the reproduction of strawberry plants from 'runners'.
National Biodiversity Network Species Dictionary (Feb 2003).
- Humphries. C.J., Press, J.R. & Sutton, D.A. (2000) Hamlyn guide to trees of Britain and Europe. Hamlyn, London.
- Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson, London.
- Press, B. (1996) Collins Wild Guide: Trees. Harper Collins Publishers, London.
MyARKive offers the scrapbook feature to signed-up members, allowing you to organize your favourite ARKive images and videos and share them with friends.
Terms and Conditions of Use of Materials
Copyright in this website and materials contained on this website (Material) belongs to Wildscreen or its licensors.
Visitors to this website (End Users) are entitled to:
- view the contents of, and Material on, the website;
- download and retain copies of the Material on their personal systems in digital form in low resolution for their own personal use;
- teachers, lecturers and students may incorporate the Material in their educational material (including, but not limited to, their lesson plans, presentations, worksheets and projects) in hard copy and digital format for use within a registered educational establishment, provided that the integrity of the Material is maintained and that copyright ownership and authorship is appropriately acknowledged by the End User.
End Users shall not copy or otherwise extract, alter or manipulate Material other than as permitted in these Terms and Conditions of Use of Materials.
Additional use of flagged material
Green flagged material
Certain Material on this website (Licence 4 Material) displays a green flag next to the Material and is available for not-for-profit conservation or educational use. This material may be used by End Users, who are individuals or organisations that are in our opinion not-for-profit, for their not-for-profit conservation or not-for-profit educational purposes. Low resolution, watermarked images may be copied from this website by such End Users for such purposes. If you require high resolution or non-watermarked versions of the Material, please contact Wildscreen with details of your proposed use.
Creative commons material
Certain Material on this website has been licensed to Wildscreen under a Creative Commons Licence. These images are clearly marked with the Creative Commons buttons and may be used by End Users only in the way allowed by the specific Creative Commons Licence under which they have been submitted. Please see http://creativecommons.org for details.
Any other use
Please contact the copyright owners directly (copyright and contact details are shown for each media item) to negotiate terms and conditions for any use of Material other than those expressly permitted above. Please note that many of the contributors to ARKive are commercial operators and may request a fee for such use.
Save as permitted above, no person or organisation is permitted to incorporate any copyright material from this website into any other work or publication in any format (this includes but is not limited to: websites, Apps, CDs, DVDs, intranets, extranets, signage, digital communications or on printed materials for external or other distribution). Use of the Material for promotional, administrative or for-profit purposes is not permitted.