Common name: European Holly, English Holly, Christmas Holly

Scientific name: Ilex aquifolium (L.) 


Identified by Linneaus,  European, or sometimes, English Holly is a dioecious, evergreen tree or shrub, generally growing to a height of 10-15m.  Not often having a diameter greater than 1m, the woody stem can be as long as 40-80cm.  The holly’s leaves generally have three to five spines around the perimeter, alternating between upward and downward orientation, and tend to be 5-12cm long and 2-6cm wide.  These hardy leaves are oval-shaped and leathery, helping the holly survive in the cold months.  Polinated by bees, the holly’s four-lobed flowers don’t appear till the plant is between 4 and 12 years old.   It is only then that the iconic red fruits appear, and then only on the female plants.  These drupes (6-10mm diameter) usually mature in October or November, though are largely too bitter to be eaten till late winter when the frost has diminished the ilicin content and softened them. Each contains 3-4 seeds, though they do not sprout for two or three years.


Though they can reach 500 years of age, often through grazing, fires, or humans cutting them down, most do not live to be 100.  This is partially because the holly is a rather slow-growing plant and partially because they’re often seen as problem plants as they take over vacant land rapidly.  Often found in shaded oak forests and near beech hedges, it is quite an adaptable species and one of the first to sprout in clear-cut areas.  Found in much of western Asia and Europe, holly requires damp, shaded environs to flourish, often as undergrowth in forests, high mountain gorges, and other such places.


According  to legend, (Quercus robur), the English Oak, battles the Holly (Ilex aquifolium), on the summer and winter solstices—the 21st of June and December.  It is at these times that the reign shifts from one to the other: the Oak king relinquishing his control of nature to the Holly in December and the Holly falling in June.  It is through this that the balance between light and darkness is maintained—as one dies, metaphorically and physically, the other is renewed, continuing the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

Additionally, the berries and leaves are often thought poisonous to humans, dogs, and cats if ingested.  This is due to the high levels of caffeine in the entire plant, as is seen with other, related plants like Ilex vomitoria, which is used to make Yerba Maté.  It has been described as having been used in Germany’s Black Forest as a substitute for tea for this reason.  Holly is also known as a diuretic, fever reducer, and laxative, though is not often used for those purposes. 

*For more information on the Oak and Holly, feel free to visit the following link and have a listen:

**For a musical version:


Kate is an ethnobiologist and artist with an interest in Pagan traditions. She wrote a Master's thesis on plant use in contemporary Pagan culture in the UK.


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