European Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

It’s funny how holly has become a universal symbol of winter and Christmas across much of the world- even in Singapore, where we don’t even have holly, or a winter for that matter. We’re all familiar with the typical getup: glossy dark green leaves, framing a cluster of perfectly round, bright red berries (well, technically, they’re drupes). And because of how it’s always portrayed, it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole growth cycle to it, before we see the familiar green-and-red sight.

There’s a very interesting story behind why holly became a symbol of Christmas. In ancient Rome, holly was associated with Saturn, the god of agriculture and harvest, and was used to decorate the halls with during the festival of Saturnalia. Druids- Celtic priests, not the Stormrage brothers (A NATURAL MISTAKE)- saw holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life, good luck and protection. Eventually, Christians adopted these practices of hanging up holly during Christmas, where its blood-red berries and thorny leaves could be well-adapted to symbolise crucifixion. It’s even known as ‘christdorn’ in German, which translates to ‘Christ thorn’.

holly flower buds

European holly flower buds and new leaves- not something I got to see often at all, and easy to miss given how tiny they are

Holly is in fact the name of a genus, Ilex, which includes 400 to 600 species. Of them all, it’s the European holly (Ilex aquifolium) that has risen to prominence. It’s native to western and southern Europe, as well as northwest Africa and southwest Asia, and often found in the shady areas of oak and beech forests. Although it can exceed 10m in height, it’s normally no more than a metre tall. The woody stem can reach a diameter of 40-80cm, and possibly larger in taller individuals. The characteristic leaves have three to five spines on each side, staying on the plant for up to five years. The European holly is dioecious, meaning that each plant has either male or female flowers. There are a couple of holly bushes along Cedar Street, and behind the department- the first time in my life I saw tiny holly flowers and green holly fruits with my very own eyes.

The holly plant is very adaptable, making it quite the invasive species in many parts of North America. As such, cultivating holly is pretty easy: they do prefer moist, slightly acidic, well-drained soil, with full sun or partial shade, but can tolerate a variety of soil conditions, except perpetually soggy soil, which severely dampens its health. One way of propagating holly plants is via cuttings, which need to be dipped in rooting hormones before being planted in a mix of potting soil and sand. For the more traditional, you can also grow holly from seed, but do note that seeds can take months or even years to germinate. Another important point to note when planting holly is that you need a male and a female plant to get holly berries. However, it can take 4 to 12 years for the plant to flower and reveal its gender, so in that sense, cuttings would be a safer bet than seeds.

european holly

Although birds love holly berries, and can even get drunk on fermenting ones, it’s pretty well known that humans shouldn’t be eating them, although they don’t appear to be fatal when consumed in small quantities. They do cause vomiting, and contain a range of chemicals, including alkaloids, caffeine, theobromine, and saponins. Due to the theobromine, which is found in chocolate, and the caffeine in the leaves, do make sure that your cats and dogs don’t eat it, although the prickly leaves should put any pet in their normal mind off, unless they’re on porcupine training. Traditionally, it was used to make bagpipes as well, although this is less commonly done today. Some part of me thinks it would have been so much more awesome to leave the leaves and berries on, though. It’d match the kilts perfectly.



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