Nature Bulletin No. 135 December 13, 1947
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
William N. Erickson, President
Roberts Mann, Supt. of Conservation
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
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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Update: June 2012