Holly, American – Ilex opaca

Holly
Holly

The holly and the ivy,
When they are all full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown

From an old Irish song “Holly and Ivy”

 

The American holly is the state tree of Delaware. And the small town I live in is named Greenwood, named for the holly forest that surrounds it!

Holly is commonly used all over the world as a Christmas decoration, a custom derived from the early Romans who sent boughs of Holly and other gifts to their friends during Saturnalia, the Roman festival of Saturn held around the 17th of December in celebration of the Winter Solstice. 

In an old Christian legend the Holly is said to have sprung up under the footsteps of Christ as he trod the earth, the spines of the leaves became symbolic of “Crown of Thorns”, the red berries representing the drops of blood associated with his suffering.

Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) a Roman naturalist in his classic “Historia naturalis”, an old world encyclopedic study of plants and animal life, tells us that if Holly is planted near a house or farm, it would repelled poison and defended it from lightning and witchcraft.

Holly leaves were formerly used as a diaphoretic and an infusion of them was given in catarrh, bronchitis, pneumonia, influenza, pleurisy, and smallpox. They have also been used in intermittent fevers and rheumatism for their tonic properties.

The berries possess totally different qualities to the leaves, being violently emetic and purgative, and if swallowed can cause excessive vomiting. Nicholas Culpeper in his “The Complete Herbal” (1653) say’s that:  “the bark and leaves are good used as fomentations for broken bones and such members as are out of joint”. He also considered the berries to be curative of colic.

Care needs to be taken, for Holly berries can be poisonous if given to children. Even in small doses the bright red berries can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea in kids.

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