HOLLY TREE (ILEX AQUIFOLIUM): BENEFITS,USES AND HISTORY OF HOLLY TREE
The holly tree is native to Central and northern Europe although there are many species of holly tree all over the world. This post is concerned mainly with the one that grows wild in the British Isles. It can be seen growing with oak trees and an old legend tell of the fight for supremacy between the oak and the holly at Lammas time, the first harvest, or lughnassadh, when the holly tree wins as it is the evergreen tree of winter. At Yule, the oak, harbinger of light and the New Year triumphs and so the New Year brings the glimmers of spring and light. The holly tree was one of the sacred trees of the Druids and at Yule they would take holly branches into their huts for the use of the spirits of the woods so that they had a warm place to shelter during the cold winter months. The holly branches were banished from dwellings at the first hint of spring so that the elves and spirits of the woods would return to their natural places and not cause evil to befall the households. Starlings are associated with these trees, as they are frequently found eating the berries in winter. However the berries are poisonous, although in times past they were used as a purgative.
Holly water was sprinkled on newborn babies to protect them from evil. In the Celtic Tree Calendar, Holly is the tree of July 8th to 4th August, and represents courage, male potency and energy. The female version of the holly tree is Ivy, and the two are mentioned in many Christmas carols, notably “The Holly and The Ivy” which states “Of all the trees that are in the wood the holly bears the crown”.
One legend surrounding holly is that it sprang from Christ’s footsteps which is why it is sometimes called the Holy Tree and Christ’s Thorn. The spiky leaves represent the crown of thorns and Christ’s suffering and the bright red berries signify the blood of Christ.
Holly, ivy and mistletoe are hung together at Christmas time, but this tradition is pagan, and the wreaths or hanging decorations of these plants signify fertility and eternal life. Holly was hung in homes in ancient Rome during the festival of Saturnalia, a riotous time of feasting and orgies, which began on 17th December and lasted for a week. Early Christians were ordered not to decorate their homes with holly at the same time because of these pagan rites as the early church wanted to distance itself from such pagan practices.
The Druids associated holly with fire and charcoal from holly wood was used to forge “true” steel. It was believed that tools and knives and swords made with holly charcoal could protect from evil and help fight evil. The twigs of the holly were used like incense and can still be used in this way today. They are especially useful when combined with sandalwood or frankincense. Ritually holly was used to help those mourning the death of loved ones and using a combination of holly and sandalwood, with dried jasmine flowers would be useful to ease the troubled.
Pliny, in his “Natural History” calls holly aquifolius, the needle leaf (tree) and says that when one is planted near a house it protects it from lightning strikes and protects the household members against witchcraft. He also rather fancifully claimed that the holly flower freezes water and if the wood of the holly tree is thrown at (but does not strike) an animal, it will go away and lie down.
Holly branches were once used as a remedy for chilblains; people would thrash their feet with the leafy branches to relieve their pain in much the same way as the Romans in wintertime Britain used nettles to get their circulation going.
It is said that if rabbits lose their appetite they should be given a small branch of holly stripped of its leaves to gnaw on, as this will act as a tonic and promote their appetite. Cows are also said to be rather partial to the leaves and twigs and deer eat them in winter too when other food is scarce.
The hard white wood of the holly tree is prized for decorative items and for inlaying and marquetry. Old country people believed that a walking stick made from holly wood would protect them from evil and give them renewed vigour. The old Holly king of Yule time is often portrayed with a wreath of holly on his head and a holly walking stick.
Culpeper in the 17th century in his Herbal thought that the holly berries were good for colic, although they cause violent vomiting, and are a purgative. He also says this; “the bark and leaves are good as fomentation for broken bones and such members as are out of joint”. For once he seems to be wrong. The berries can be dried and ground to a powder and used to stop bleeding externally, as they have astringent qualities, but should not be taken internally.
Holly leaves however can be effective in the treatment of a number of ailments. In the Black Forest, Germany they were used as tea and in Brazil the leaves of Ilex paraguayensis are used in a tisane as a diuretic and to promote sweating during fevers. The leaves should be collected in May and June around noon when the dew has gone from them. Be careful to discard any imperfect ones. A tisane or decoction can be prepared from fresh or dried leaves to reduce the temperature of the body in a fever, when you have a cold, the tisane can help get rid of mucus and tisanes have been used as a diuretic. Juice from the leaves has been given to people with jaundice.
To make a tisane to bring down temperatures during a bout of fever you can soak holly leaves overnight in cold water, then boil them briefly, strain then drink the liquid. This also soothes coughs.
If you have dried leaves then take 4 tsps of crumbled dried leaves and boil in water for ten minutes, strain and drink. This is good for fevers associated with flu and as a diuretic if you suffer from rheumatism or gout.
For a purgative which is less violent than eating the berries, soak the bark of the holly tree in cold water overnight and take two cups a day after meals. If you put 2 tbsps dried bark on a pint of water and boil for ten minutes, this has a tranquillizing effect and calms hysteria.
A decoction can be made with 2 to 4 tablespoons of leaves to 1 pint of water. Boil the water until it is reduced to half a pint then strain and drink. This is good for removing kidney stones, gout, urinary disorders, bronchitis and pleurisy. The recommended dose is one cup a day.
Holly contains rutin (also found in rue), theobromine, ursolic and Ilexic acids, tannins, gum, ilexantine and ilicin.
If you collect holly leaves wear gloves so that you don’t get scratched by their sharp points.