A range of flowers in Colins Paddock

Map of the Down

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Holly - (Ilex aquifolium)

hollyVisiting the Down on a drab winter’s day, my spirits were raised by the sight of a young holly tree gaily bedecked with crimson berries. It was easy to see why our ancestors accorded the tree such veneration. The ancient Romans decked their houses with it at the mid-winter festival of Saturnalia and the Druids are said to have brought its evergreen boughs into their homes to provide winter refuges for tree spirits. With the coming of Christianity the tree was easily ‘baptised’ into the new faith, its prickles reminding us of Christ’s crown of thorns and its red berries of his blood shed on Calvary.

But not every holly tree bears berries. While a few are monoecious, on most the creamy flowers that appear in May are either all male or all female. A male tree, of course, will never bear fruit, a female only if there is a male in the vicinity to provide the pollen which insects in search of the nectar transmit from tree to tree.

Not surprisingly, hollies were long considered to have magical powers. Pliny believed that a holly planted near a dwelling would protect the house from lightning and its occupants from witchcraft, and as late as 1778 Thomas Chatterton noted that, ‘against foul fiends … the Holly bush and Churchyard Yew are certain antidotes’.

Holly leaves, bark and berries were all used by the old herbalists for a range of conditions from rheumatism to smallpox. The berries were recommended by Culpepper for the cure of colic – but since they are violently emetic and purgative, one suspects that the treatment may often have produced effects worse than the disease!

David Yarham
April 2007

See also...

Report of the visit from Cambridge Natural History Society in August 2017


News about a visit by the local branch of Butterfly Conservation charity taking place in August 2016


News about the very special area of Colin's Bank, published in February 2015

Pasque Flower

One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.pasqueflower_jb_may2016_crop_453

Photo by Jill Butler