It’s Christmas and you’ve probably been to at least one holiday party. And you know it was definitely great all your coworkers were there except they weren’t your coworkers they were your significant others’ coworkers and by the third drink you start to wonder when Brad will notice that your not listening to his story about how everyone was a lot drunker at last years party, of course they were, Brad, do you not remember 2016?
Anyway, so you start looking around and wonder why there is so many spiky plant parts hanging everywhere. They even got holly branch images sewn into decorative hand towels (don’t use these they’re not for use only for looks) and painted on hors d’oeuvre plates because nothing says festive food like a mildly toxic plant plate. You start to wonder why theres so many spiky holly branches decking the halls. Are they a tool to punctuate all these horrifying conversations with their super sharp leaves, or perhaps a self defense tool to ward off anyone else who wants to threaten you with inane stories of boredom or ask probing questions about your personal life. And if that doesn’t work the berries could be a good last resort. You could eat them and the massive diarrhea, vomiting, and potential death would give you a foolproof excuse to leave immediately and show that you resist this societal plague of forced holiday parties á la Katniss and Peeta at the end of Hunger Games.
Thank goodness for Holly
Besides decking the halls around western homes throughout the Christmas season, why is there so much holly? Well, it definitely spends a lot of time around our homes during Christmas time because of its inherent festive nature. Seeing red and green both during the winter made many cultures in Europe drag it into their houses as the rest of their deciduous forest were left bare and brown. This was pretty common for pagan cultures all over the place long before Mary brought Jesus. Druids (Yeah, like the tree worshipping, Gandalf looking Druids) even wore crowns of it around their heads to 1.) to defend from evil spirits and 2.) to look festive af. It is also believed that some groups of Druids forbade cutting hollies down because of their magic potential and only collected their boughs to deck their prehistoric fa la la la la la halls in a form of festive resource management. This practice carried on in some places in northern Europe and ended up benefitting later agriculturalists as holly groves gave occasional food to livestock and birds during long winters.
But other than garnishing everything from clothes to cakes this holiday season where else do we see holly in our lives besides being a rhyming word for the unfortunate christmas-themed adjective – jolly? No one needs that word.
Well, first lets go through the different types of holly. The one that you imagine immediately when you here any Christmas song played too early during the year is Ilex aquifolium or European Holly. If you live on the east coast of the U.S. (where I’m from originally) then you’re also probably very familiar with the American Holly, Ilex opaca. This one looks very similar to the European Holly but can grow taller because america is better. The sight of the American hollies gave some of the first English colonists to what’s now North America some peace of mind when they realized that they wouldn’t have to defend Christmas without ample festive ammunition, but unfortunately just like European Holly you can’t eat American Holly so most of those relieved colonists died of starvation. Another species of holly is Ilex paraguariensis! Most of you may know this one from its Spanish name, yerba mate. Like American holly, yerba mate, is native to the Americas, specifically from South America, but unlike American holly is not toxic. If you’re not familiar with yerba its leaves are used for a super popular tea that is consumed from super fun gourds. And that’s not the only one! Other hollies that humans like to make teas from are:
Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria) from coastal southeastern U.S. (ignore the name it probably was a misunderstanding between English colonists and native peoples)
Kuding Holly (Ilex kaushue) from China
(Ilex guayusa) from the Amazon region
These days, like many other plants, humans have moved holly trees around the world for various reasons. Since being cultivated by native peoples in what is now South America Yerba has traveled now to most corners of the world as an ever more popularized drink and cultivated crop. European Holly has been transplanted all over North America by festive, European Christmas enthusiasts. Where I live currently in Washington state European Holly is an introduced species that is listed on the monitor list by the state noxious weed control board and this is most likely due to a heavy holly planting campaign in the early 20th century by Lillian McEwan and her Washington State Society for the Conservation of Wild Flowers and Tree Planting (yeah that irony is real). They employed (got parents to volunteer their) children for years and planted thousands of hollies around the state for reasons like beautifying the state, replacing timbered underbrush, and providing a more festive looking forest in an attempt to get Washington to become the ‘Holly’ or ‘Christmas’ state. Although her desired state nickname never stuck the hollies sure did, literally, every time you walk through a Seattle metro park.
Well, better get back to that party, maybe you can hide behind one of the festive foliage displays and eat the cookies and wine you hid away earlier, and next time you see a shiny holly sprig out-doing everyone else’s gay apparel you’ll appreciate and wonder about it just a little bit more.
Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas everyone.
Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board: https://www.nwcb.wa.gov/weeds/english-holly
Smith, Al. “How Washington Nearly Became the Holly State: The Story of Holly in Seward Park”. Douglasia. Winter 2013.
Byfield, Andy. “Holly: the Meaning of the Festive Tree”. The Guardian. Dec. 24, 2012.
1.) Common holly (Ilex aquifolium). Plate 1 from ‘Traitae des Arbres et Arbustres’ (1852) by Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau (1700-1782).
2.) Erick Dowell