Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Holly

Another evergreen from the garden and no doubt familiar to most: Ilex aquifolium or holly. Ilex is the only living genus in the family Aquifoliaceae and contains around 400 species in the temperate and sub-tropical zones. They aren't all evergreen trees: some are creepers, some shrubs and others deciduous trees.
Holly is dioecious and thinking about it, I don't recall ever noticing the flowers, male or female, which is weird (although they are described as being inconspicuous!) They apparently appear from May to August but perhaps only when the plant reaches a certain age?
The genus name, Ilex, actually comes from the classical latin name for the holm oak, Quercus ilex, presumably because the leaves bear a resemblance and they're both evergreen. 
The berries (more correctly called drupes) are poisonous, especially to children who can die after ingesting a mere twenty or so.
Like gorse, holly was used as forage for livestock in the winter, sometimes being crushed in the same manner to make it more palatable. It's leaves have more calories per unit weight than any other forage plant in this country.
In Mr Mabey's book there are several pages relating to holly usages and lore. One that caught my eye relates how holly was often used in sea defences and that Holmstone, 'a unique wood of stunted hollies growing on the shingle beach at Dungeness', was documented as early as the eighth century! I visit Dungeness from time to time and have made a note to find Holmstone on my next visit.
As for deliberate planting, it is, or was, a commonly used boundary marker. One walker notes that they often grow near stiles, perhaps aiding the walker in finding the line to take in order that the true path might be followed. However, there are more prosaic explanations for their persistence in hedgerows, such as their usefulness as sightlines for winter ploughing, or the general superstition that felling a holly tree was bad luck. 
In East Sussex they are left proud of the hedges to discourage the transit of witches, who of course run along the tops of hedges to get from one place to another when their brooms are broken.
These days the only holly lore most people know relates to the fact that Harry Potter's wand was made from Ilex aquifolium (with, of course, a phoenix feather core!). 
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