Common holly (Ilex aquifolium)

GenusIlex (1)
SizeHeight: up to 10 m (2)

The common holly has yet to be assessed by the IUCN.

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).

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).

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).

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).

There are no known threats to the common holly.

As the holly is common and widespread, conservation action is not currently considered necessary.

For more on the wealth of folklore and tradition centred on the common holly, see:

For more on British trees see:

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:

  1. National Biodiversity Network Species Dictionary (Feb 2003).
  2. Humphries. C.J., Press, J.R. & Sutton, D.A. (2000) Hamlyn guide to trees of Britain and Europe. Hamlyn, London.
  3. Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson, London.
  4. Press, B. (1996) Collins Wild Guide: Trees. Harper Collins Publishers, London.