Holly (Ilex aquifolium) or Cuileann in Irish was classified by the 8th century Laws of Neighbourhood as one of the seven ‘nobles of the wood’ (1). These included as well oak, ash, yew, Scots pine, crab apple, hazel. It had a high ranking because it was a most useful tree for war (making chariot shafts and spears) and for feeding livestock. The fine for cutting down one of these trees was two and a half milch cows; for cutting a branch a one-year-old heifer; for cutting a fork a two-year-old heifer.
Holly and ivy were used for protection against evil spirits. In winter holly was brought indoors so that the “good people” could find shelter in it from the cold. Like ivy it was a symbol of green life which would come in spring (2)
The word ‘holly’ comes from the word ‘holy’ and was associated with Christ’s suffering: the thorns represented his crown and the berries his dripping blood (3). Both holly and ivy leaves were put under the pillow to foretell marriage. This rhyme was recited: “Oh ivy green and holly red, tell me, tell me when I shall wed”.
Berries are only formed on female trees. These begin their lives as tiny white four-petalled flowers which can be seen in May. They need pollen from the similar looking flowers of a nearby male tree to be fertilised. It is easy to distinguish male flowers from female ones because the former will always have four stamens with yellow anthers on top (4a;4b;4c).
Don’t throw away those holly berries after the Christmas season. They can be placed in a mixture of half horticultural sand and half peat-free compost and stratified for eighteen months outdoors. Mix the berries with the sand/peat mixture at a ratio of 1:3. Some people extract the skins and flesh first before stratifying them. After eighteen months remove the seeds that have germinated and place them in small 7cm diameter pots of peat-free compost (5).
Places named after the holly include, Cullen (Place abounding in holly), Kilcullen (Church of the holly), Glencullen (Glen of the holly), Moycullen, (Plain of holly), Cloncullen, (Meadow of holly).