Five things you never knew about holly

A Robin among holly branches

The UK's most common native evergreen has adorned gardens and homes for centuries. An important winter food for birds and animals, it's found in ancient deer parks, native woodland and historic gardens.

Here we explore the rich history of one of Britain's favourite festive plants.

Holly’s symbolic associations have their origins in pagan culture. A signature plant in early, formal gardens, prized by the Victorians and valued for its tolerance to pollution in industrial areas, holly is incredibly versatile.

There are over 200 cultivated varieties of our native holly and while the Latin name, Ilex aquifolium, means ‘with pointed leaves’, not all of them are prickly. Plant hunters in the 19th century enriched our gardens with exotic hollies brought over from China and Japan. 

Furniture makers have prized this whitest of woods and Christmas wouldn’t be complete without those shiny, dark green leaves and bright berries in wreaths and garlands.

A woman making a Christmas holly wreath

Pagan roots

Superstition, magic and myth surround holly’s deeply pagan roots. The Druids, Celts and Romans brought evergreens into their homes during winter. They believed their ability to keep their leaves was magical and assured the return of spring.

In Christianity, holly was adopted as a symbol of Christ’s crown of thorns; the crimson berries a symbol of his blood and the evergreen a metaphor for life after death.

The tradition of decking the halls with boughs of holly at Christmas continues today. Gardeners and volunteers cut holly and other evergreens from our estates to create garlands and wreaths to decorate doors, bannisters, mantelpieces and halls.

Variegated holly in the holly wood at Winkworth arboretum

Prickly Kings and Queens

Dr Wilfrid Fox created his arboretum at Winkworth in Surrey in the 1930s. One celebration of his love for native plant species are the fifty or so hollies growing in the holly wood. Among them are the especially prickly silver hedgehog holly, and the festive sounding ‘Silver Queen’ and ‘Golden King’, with their creamy-white or yellow-tipped leaves.

When naming them, the plant breeders confusingly muddled the sexes - the Queen is a male holly and the King is female. In fact, most hollies are either male or female and need the opposite sex in close proximity to produce fruit. There are plenty of both in the holly wood at Winkworth, so you can enjoy an abundance of berries in winter.

Early morning mist over the Holly Walk at Tyntesfield

Tyntesfield's crowning glory

Hollies form an important part in the design of the High Victorian garden at Tyntesfield, near Bristol. The grand terrace, dating back to the 1850s, has ten formal flower beds, each containing a ‘crown’ of holly. The broad path from the house is also lined with hollies; their tightly clipped, ‘pin-cushion’ heads making a striking feature.

Recent research has discovered unnamed varieties among the collection of over 38 different hollies on the estate. These were likely bought as seedlings from Victorian nurseries by former gardeners or members of the Gibbs family, who lived here over four generations.

The more unusual and notable varieties are now being propagated at our plant conservation centre in Devon.

A George III inlaid satinwood and holly commode, one of an important pair by Mayhew and Ince

Hooray for holly wood

As one of Britain’s most common native trees, holly has been used by furniture makers for centuries. Its dense and finely-textured wood was popular in decorative marquetry and inlay work. As the whitest wood, it can also be easily stained.

It was used as an inlay in Elizabethan oak furniture and later in the 17th century to form lighter bands of colour on walnut-veneered furniture. During the second half of the 18th century, holly appeared more extensively in fashionable neo-classical furniture, either in its natural white form or stained with colours.

As well as it's decorative uses, holly wood burns hot and long, making it a perfect fire fuel on cold, winter nights.

A variegated holly topped with its golden ball at Hanbury Hall

Holly's gilded history

Created around 1700, the garden at Dyrham Park near Bath was one of the most ambitious of its day. Leading garden designer, George London, adopted the fashionable Dutch baroque style and many hollies featured among the fountains, canal, parterres and walks.

London also designed a formal garden at Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire, however it suffered the same fate as Dyrham's garden and was swept away in the following century.

When Hanbury’s early 18th-century garden was recreated in the 1990s, gilded balls were added to the variegated hollies in the parterre, echoing gold balls on the weather vane and bowling green pavilions, unifying the garden as London would have intended.