A personal diary about life in a country town, Bungendore NSW Australia

Thursday 22 July 2004
Left: Winter sun hits the holly bush.
Above: Inside the berries are four segmented seeds and a sticky yellow flesh that turns brown quickly on contact with the air. The underside of the leaf is a paler green to the top and less waxy/glossy.
Deck the halls with boughs of holly

It must be Christmas, the holly is in berry. Or it should be Christmas in this out of sync hemisphere, where we're cheated out of the European traditions that accompany mid winter which are meant to restore the sun at it's lowest and shortest days and kick start the new growing year. (At the moment I'll settle for some rain.)

Holly, Ilex aquifolium or the American variety Ilex opaca (there are a number of varieties even deciduous ones) prefers a mild climate and doesn't like extended frost. Along with the mistletoe that has yellow berries in midwinter, it's ability to add a touch of cheery colour to a season without much of that, has given it a place in folklore.  Our bush is about my height, six foot (that's er 1.something metres), and was 'uncovered' when we moved the front gate (it is beside the Spindle berry tree I wrote about here). It is the first time I've noticed the holly with berries so it's probably a young tree planted just before we moved here eight years ago. The leaves are so glossy green and the berries so improbably red, it prompted this diary entry.

I'd read a lot about the symbolism of the holly, but I looked it up again in my old two volume Margaret Grieve's Modern Herbal (of course it's available in full online, and you should read her holly entry here for its medicinal and folklore details). I then searched the web, but it seems that Mrs. Grieve has cornered the holly information and everyone else just quotes or steals from her entry.

In Europe and UK the tree is a common hedgerow plant, growing strongly and with spiky leaves that keep animals in or out. It was often planted along with plantations of oak to protect the small trees from animals. The upper leaves are often less spiked and can be cut and fed to animals as a stock feed in winter, so it's more the density of those close plantings that make it work as a fence.

Trees are either male or female, only the female trees have berries and some varieties never develop the classic Christmas card Holly spikes. There's one variety that is called hedgehog holly which has spines on the surface as well. I'll just have to wait and see what ours grows like.

The holly's leaves are thick and 'leathery' with a waxy surface to slow down water loss through transpiration. This makes even the green leaves burn (try it!), and in forest fires the trees apparently burn like torches. This is why the leaves last as a decoration. When they eventually fall from the tree they stay green on the ground for a long time.

The wood also holds little water compared to its weight, so it is a good firewood and even burns when it's green. The pale timber, almost white, is dense but can be carved or turned easily, and is used as an inlay wood, and used to be made into whip handles, walking sticks, piano keys, scientific instruments and shuttles for weaving. It's still favoured for billiard cue inlays.

The trunk of the bigger trees is a greyish smooth bark with slight indentations and fine 'scribbly writing' cracks in it. Apparently the thin bark can get sunburned and I was intrigued to find that it once was stripped, pounded and allowed to ferment to make a sticky substance called birdlime. Now birdlime is different from bird lime, bird droppings and mistletoe is also called birdlime. Birdlime (actually bird-glue) was favoured by poachers who used to mix it with fat, goose-fat was favoured, and spread it on branches to trap birds who would stick to it.

The English Lake District had so much holly that they used to make birdlime for export to Asia where apparently it was used to catch insects. (I wonder if that's what was used on the old fly-strips, those yellowy rolls of curled paper hanging in toilets and kitchens that I remember from my country childhood.)

One entry I found added some interesting information related to pubs and drinking (and the difference between Irish superstitions and English).

It is said to be unlucky to cut down a holly. The tree is one of the ancient symbols of the midwinter festival. In Ireland it is an abode of the fairies and thus should not be grown near a house; in England it was planted near houses to ward off witches and lightning. Vendors of alcohol would often set up their stalls under a holly tree at fairs and markets, and this may be reflected in pub names such as The Hollybush or The Bush.         

Greg Moffat, Biodiversity.org (has a good overview of Holly taxonomy etc.)

We're going to have to wait for it to grow a bit to drink under our holly, but I like the idea. Oh, and if you didn't read Margaret Grieve don't eat the berries. They're poisonous to humans even though the birds seem to like them. Merry Christmas.

The The Latin derivation of Ilex comes apparently from the latin name for the Holm oak Quercus ilex whose young leaves have the same kind of indentations and spines.

Folklore and Magical use

"Also that its flowers cause water to freeze and that its wood when thrown at an animal, even without touching it, had the property of compelling the animal to return and lie down beside it."

I'll try the flowers bit when they next appear and tell you about the result. Currently the pond in the backyard is frozen anyway with minus 5 mornings. The holly stick throwing was apparently handy if you're rounding up the cows, or being attacked by a wild animal.

How to make holly Birdlime/glue

"From the bark, stripped from the young shoots and suffered to ferment, birdlime is made. The bark is stripped off about midsummer and steeped in clean water; then boiled till it separates into layers, when the inner green portion is laid up in small heaps till fermentation ensues. After about a fortnight has elapsed, it becomes converted into a sticky, mucilaginous substance, and is pounded into a paste, washed and laid by again to ferment. It is then mixed with some oily matter, goosefat being preferred, and is ready for use
." M.Grieve.

Letter from Niccolo Machiavelli to Francesco Vettori 10 December 1513

"I am living on my farm, and since I had my last bad luck, I have not spent twenty days, putting them all together, in Florence. I have until now been snaring thrushes with my own hands. I got up before day, prepared birdlime, went out with a bundle of cages on my back, so that I looked like Geta when he was returning from the harbor with Amphitryon's books. I caught at least two thrushes and at most six. And so I did all September. Then this pastime, pitiful and strange as it is, gave out, to my displeasure. And of what sort my life is, I shall tell you."

(If like me you wondered about that  Amphitryon/Geta reference it appears that Machiavelli is referring to an ancient Roman comedy by a playwright called Plautus.)

"Plautus made the Romans laugh. This highly successful playwright transformed the mild-mannered Greek New Comedy written more than a century earlier into a more playful and ribald style. Unlike Terence, whose plays were thoroughly Hellenic, Plautus introduces into his borrowings Roman characters, customs, and objects. Plautus is the earliest Latin author of whom we have more than fragments; twenty-one of his plays are extant." Harvard Uni press

So there. (Marginalia rules ok!)

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Bungendore Country Diary by Fred Harden