Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

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Holly is an evergreen shrub with distinct spiked, glossy leaves.

Common name: holly

Scientific name: Ilex aquifolium
Family: Aquifoliaceae

UK provenance: native

Interesting fact: the mistle thrush is known for vigorously guarding the berries of holly in winter, to prevent other birds from eating them.

What does holly look like?

Overview: mature trees can grow up to 15m and live for 300 years. The bark is smooth and thin with numerous small, brown 'warts', and the stems are dark brown. 

Leaves: dark green, glossy and oval. Younger plants have spiky leaves, but the leaves of older trees are much more likely to be smooth. Leaves in the upper parts of the tree are also likely to be smooth.

Flowers: holly is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers occur on different trees. Flowers are white with four petals.

Fruits: once pollinated by insects, female flowers develop into scarlet berries, which can remain on the tree throughout winter.

Look out for: it is easily identified by its bright red berries and shiny, leathery leaves that usually have spiny prickles on the edges.

Could be confused with: unlikely to be confused with anything although many cultivated and variegated varieties exist.

Identified in winter by: holly is evergreen so its leaves remain green year round.

Where to find holly

It is native in the UK and across Europe, north Africa and western Asia. It is commonly found in woodland, scrub and hedgerows, especially in oak and beech woodland. Popular as an ornamental shrub, holly is widely planted in parks and gardens, and there are many cultivated forms featuring alternative foliage and berry colours.

Value to wildlife

Holly provides dense cover and good nesting opportunities for birds, while its deep, dry leaf litter may be used by hedgehogs and small mammals for hibernation. 

The flowers provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects. The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of the holly blue butterfly, along with those of various moths including the yellow barred brindle, double-striped pug and the holly tortrix. The smooth leaves found at the tops of holly trees are a winter source of food for deer.

The berries are a vital source of food for birds in winter, and are also eaten by small mammals such as wood mice and dormice. 

Mythology and symbolism

Holly branches have long been used to decorate homes in winter. The tree was seen as a fertility symbol and a charm against witches, goblins and the devil. It was thought to be unlucky to cut down a holly tree.

How we use holly

Holly wood is the whitest of all woods, and is heavy, hard and fine grained. It can be stained and polished and is used to make furniture or in engraving work. It is commonly used to make walking sticks. Holly wood also makes good firewood and burns with a strong heat.

Holly branches are still used to decorate homes and make wreaths at Christmas. 

Threats

Holly leaf miner may cause damage to foliage and holly leaf blight may cause dieback. 

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