Holly is a genus of about 480 species of flowering plants.
The greatest diversity of species is found in the Americas and in Southeast Asia.
Before holly was hung in houses to accompany Christmas trees, it was considered to be a sacred plant by the Druids.
In Druid lore, cutting down a holly tree would bring bad luck. In contrast, hanging the plant in homes was believed to bring good luck and protection. Holly was also thought to protect homes against lightning strikes.
Romans associated holly with Saturn, the god of agriculture and harvest, and decked the halls with its boughs during the festival of Saturnalia (Winter Solstice Festival).
Christians adopted the holly tradition from Druid, Celtic and Roman traditions, and its symbolism changed to reflect Christian beliefs.
Since medieval times the plant has carried a Christian symbolism, as expressed in the well-known Christian Christmas carol “The Holly and the Ivy”, in which the holly represents Jesus and the ivy represents the Virgin Mary.
Holly was an important element in deer parks and old hunting estates – and the name holly still survives in modern place names such as Hollins, Holm Hodder, Hollyoaks and Hollywood – and were important for winter food. In the New Forest, in southern England, holly is still cut down as browse for the ponies.
Holly occurs from sea level to more than 2,000 meters (6,600 ft) with high mountain species.
The plants come in all sizes, ranging from spreading dwarf holly shrubs 15 centimeters (6 inches) in height to holly trees 21 meters (70 feet) tall. Their shapes vary from rounded to pyramidal to columnar.
Hollies have alternate simple leaves, and many species’ leaves have wavy margins tipped with spines.
The single or clustered, usually greenish small flowers are unisexual and have four petals, and the male and female flowers are usually borne on separate plants.
The fruits are drupes and are an important winter food for many bird species; most are not safe for human consumption.
Holly – more specifically the European holly – is commonly referenced at Christmas time, and is often referred to by the name Christ’s thorn.
In many Western Christian cultures, holly is a traditional Christmas decoration, used especially in wreaths and illustrations, for instance on Christmas cards.
In heraldry, holly is used to symbolize truth. The Norwegian municipality of Stord has a yellow twig of holly in its Coat-of-arms.
Japan has a type of holly that is grown in that country. It is related to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. This goddess would hide in her cave during the winter and needed to be coaxed out. Uzume, a clown goddess, has the job of luring Amaterasu out of her cave every spring. She would tie a sacred jewel and mirror to a holly branch and dangle it by the mouth of the cave while she danced. Soon Amaterasu would come out and spring would begin.
Leaves of some holly species are used by some cultures to make daily tea.
In the Harry Potter novels, holly is used as the wood in Harry’s wand.
A number of holly species are endangered, and at least one, I. gardneriana, is extinct because of habitat loss.