Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Holly
Nature Bulletin No. 135   December 13, 1947
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
William N. Erickson, President
Roberts Mann, Supt. of Conservation

HOLLY
Long before the birth of Christ, the Romans decorated their halls with holly and exchanged gifts ornamented with sprigs of it, in celebration of their midwinter festival, the Saturnalia -- "the turning of the sun". They and the pagan tribes of Europe and England had many superstitions about the tree. Witches were supposed to fear the holly, and a tree planted beside the house protected it from evil spirits, or from lightning. Later it became known as the Christ Thorn, associated with the crucifixion. Wreaths were made of it to symbolize the crown of thorns, the bright red berries representing drops of blood.

There are over 300 species and varieties of holly. The English holly, now grown in Oregon and Washington, is considered most beautiful because it has thornier, glossier leaves, larger brighter berries, and more of them. There are some holly trees in England as much as 80 feet tall, 8 feet in circumference, said to be 1000 years old. Our North American holly, never as tall, formerly grew along the Atlantic Coast from Nova Scotia to Florida, in the Gulf states, and up the Mississippi valley as far as southern Indiana. Destructive cutting has eliminated the tree in many localities. Most of our Christmas holly now comes from Delaware and Maryland; some from several southern states.

It is a very slow-growing tree with pointed glossy leaves, dark green above and yellowish-green below. On the upper branches of tall trees the leaves are spineless but in general the leaves have numerous sharp spines. They stay on 3 years and then drop off in autumn, yet the tree stays evergreen because each year it grows new twigs with new leaves. In spring, the small creamy-white flowers, in dense clusters, form lace-like patterns against the dark shiny leaves. Some trees have only male flowers and therefore no berries. The wood is hard, even-grained and ivory-white. It is used in inlays or, dyed black, as a substitute for ebony.

Don't eat the berries! Relished by birds and other animals, they make a human violently sick. We want you to have a MERRY CHRISTMAS!


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