Tag Archives: holly

Sacred Trees in the Americas: American Holly (Ilex Opaca) – Magic, Meanings, Ecology, and Divination

American Holly is one of the most wonderful trees for getting us through dark times.  And as the season of darkness is upon us once more, it is a good time to consider the magic, meanings, and mystery of this incredible holly tree!

American Holly has many names including white holly, prickly holly, Christmas Holly, Yule Holly and Evergreen Holly.  It is quite similar to European Holly (Illex Aquifolium) with similar leaves, berries, and an overall growth habit. The American Holly has larger, brighter leaves and berries, but the trees are otherwise quite similar. While I often argue against importing meanings and uses of European trees into American contexts (with Ash being a great case in point), in this case, I think that the myths and old-world understandings of Holly apply!

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon our landscape. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Tulip Poplar, Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

Beautiful holly berries in late fall

The native range for American Holly spans from Rhode Island and New England coastal regions down into Florida and across the midwest to Louisana and Texas.  It can be found throughout the south-eastern and Eastern United States, and beyond its native range, is widely planted as an ornamental, thus, is frequently found in urban and suburban areas. Almost anywhere I’ve traveled in a city or new area is a chance to connect with American Holly in some form: tree, shrub, or small bush!  In fact, it is so popular as an ornamental that you can find up to 1000 different cultivars. It is shaped into shrubs, trees, and even holly hedges.

In the wild, American Holly is primary an understory tree, thriving in shaded woods, along streams and creeks, and can handle both dry and wet conditions, but not flooding or wetland conditions.  It does prefer slightly acidic soil and sandy soil and will grow in full sun to full shade. If the soil is too alkali where it grows, the leaves will turn a brownish-yellow.

The American Holly is an evergreen tree that can grow to 40-60 feet tall.  It has evergreen leaves that grow in an alternate pattern with a leathery feel.  The holly leaves are fairly unmistakable and easy to spot because of their depiction in modern culture: they are 1-3″ long with spiny tooths coming out of them in a regular fashion.

It provides food for birds (cedar waxwings, songbirds, cardinals, goldfinches, bobwhites) and small mammals (turkey, quail, white-tailed deer, squirrels). It is a nursery plant for Henry’s Elfin butterfly. It also provides excellent cover and shelter for birds–we have an American Holly growing next to our house and every year, the cardinals make a nest within the densely packed branches.

The holly tree blooms with white (sometimes greenish-white) flowers in April-June that have four petals and a balanced fourfold shape.  You can tell the male from the female flowers because the female flowers appear in clusters of 1-3 while the males appear in clusters of 3-12.  Male and female flowers often occur on separate trees. These make way for green berries, who finally turn to the classic bright red as we move into the late fall (Samhain) and winter months (Winter Solstice). Only the female tree produces holly berries.

Human Uses

The Holly wood is a beautiful, strong, fine-grained white wood that can be sanded, stained, and worked.  It is often used for furniture, woodwork, carving, engraving, cabinetry, and other fine woodworking.  It is not in high commercial demand because hollies never get that large, but among folk artisans and woodcarvers, it is often sought out and used.

Holly (both European and American) is tied to the winter months, the dark half of the year, and the Yule season.  These traditions of “decking the halls with boughs of holly” were imported from the old world and then applied to the American Holly.  I’ve used Holly extensively as a natural decoration for Yule and it is just lovely on the mantle–it stays green and the berries stay red long after the plants dry out.  We usually have to trim our Holly to keep it away from the sidewalk–and these trimmings are all we need to provide delightful Yule decorations for our home.  With this said, the demand for holly decorations has caused a decline in wild-growing holly in some parts of the US; given this, it is wise to cultivate a holly or two in your yard if you want to have these decorations or source them sustainably.  As with anything else, commercial demand causes a decline of the species, and we very much want to attend to this issue when buying any plant matter at the store.

Edible and Herbal Uses

All of the Ilex species (which includes all Hollies) are somewhat toxic if ingested.  The berries of the holly are poisonous and will cause diarrhea, sweating, vomiting, and dehydration–so while you can use them on your mantle, you don’t want them in your stomach!  However, if you wanted to induce vomiting (emetic action) these berries are one thing you could use to do so as they are a traditional medicine in this regard.

The roasted leaves of the American Holly can be made into a caffeine-free herbal tea. This tea has a rich history, including drinking as a tea substitute extensively during the American Civil War when resources were scarce. The tea has some medicinal properties and was used to treat colds, although I couldn’t find too much more information on the specific medicinal uses, as it is not listed in any herbal that I own.  In fact, many holly species also have leaves that can be made into tea, but you want to make sure you identify the species properly. A good guide for this is Eat the Weeds, which offers a thorough discussion of how to make tea (with caffeine) with some holly species. They discuss how some communities have made a tea of the young leaves of the Gallberry holly (Ilex glabra) which can be a good source of vitamins and minerals.  Make sure you have the identification right on this holly though, because others (like the Yaupon Holly, lex vomitoria ) have leaves that make you vomit.

Western Occult and American Folk Magic Uses

Holly is, as mentioned above, inseparable the Winter Soltsice/ Yule and it has been tied for milleniua with bringing brightness into the dark half of the year. Holly was, of course, one of the seven chieftain trees of the ancient druids, and thus, a very magical tree throughout the world.

In the American Hoodoo tradition, as described by Cat Yronwode in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic,  Holly leaves are burned with other blessing herbs to protect the home and bring good luck into the home.  Placing holly above the door to the home also protects the home and draws helpful spirits.

In Tree Wisdom: The Definitive Guidebook to the Myth, Folklore, and Healing Power of Trees by Jacqueline Memory Paterson, she describes some of the mythology surrounding holly, including its connection to immortality.  In the old world, people were encouraged to bring the holly into their homes to ward against elves, fairies, and other spirits that could otherwise cause harm.  Holly’s bright berries and leaves also helped people with winter depression and help us get through the darkest time of the year. The holly was always required to be removed from the house by Imbolc eve or it could bring misfortune. In Ancient Rome, the Romans gave gifts of Holly during the five-day festival of Saturnalia, which took place at the winter solstice. These eventually gave way to the Christian imagery, which still uses Holly, in December. Even though Christianity has shifted many of the ancient pagan beliefs, the remnants of these can still be found even in modern-day celebrations here in the US.

The Holly King and Oak King legends are also powerful and enduring; both evolved from earlier indigenous and pagan depictions of the green man or the spirit of the forest/plants as well as the virility that is necessary for life to continue.  Paterson notes that the oldest depictions of the Holly King were of a wildman holly god, and Christian suppression later turned him into more of a “king” like figure without sexual virility.  Regardless of the shift of this imagery over time, the Holly and Oak kings rule over the year and are two sides of the god of nature and his cycles.  The Oak King comes into power at Midwinter (when we move from the lowest point to the highest), while the Holly King comes into power at Midsummer (the waning part of the year).  The Holly, therefore, represents the growth, light, and harvests of the rest of the season to come.  Many rituals in the modern druid tradition acknowledge the power of the ancient Oak and Holly kings as part of our ceremony.

Holly is one of the sacred trees in the Ogham, the Celtic Tree Alphabet. The Holly, Tinne, is tied to the letter T and the Ogham letter that has three upright lines.  According to Steve Blamires in Celtic Tree Mysteries, the evergreen nature of the Holly tree can be tied to a “link” as in a link in a chain, which is one name for Tinne.  This shows Holly’s link not only with the oak (from the ancient lore) but also between our world and the otherworld.

In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer describes holly as being firey and warm in the second degree.  Astrologically, it represents Saturn in Leo.  It is a very protective tree and is thought to ward against lightning and also against hostile magic and hostile spirits and otherworldly beings.

Divination and Magical Uses

Based on the ecology, folk uses, and history of holly, the following are three divination and magical uses for this incredible tree:

Darkness. Holly has long been associated with the winter solstice in the darkest time of the year, and seeing Holly come up in a divination reading may signal that a time of darkness is upon you.

Light in the Darkness.  Tied to Holly’s theme of darkness, however, Holly reminds us that there is always hope.  The triumph of the Holly king over the Oak king in the ancient myths ensure us that even when the light is all but extinguished from the world, the evergreen leaves and bright red berries will be a sign of coming out of this dark time and hope in the future.  Stay strong, for spring will return.

Protection in Dark Times. We are continuing to live in darker and more uncertain times, with more and more of us losing basic faith in our institutions, culture, and civilization.  It is certain that human civilization is on a dark path.  Thankfully, trees like holly can offer us basic protection from the hostile energies of this age.  And that’s exactly what she does!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the incredible Holly tree.  If you have additional information to add or stories about the holly, I would very much love to hear them!  Blessings to you, my dear readers!

Wildcrafted Winter Solstice Decorations with Conifers, Holly, Ivy, Bittersweet, and More

Decorated mantle with greenery, ribbon, and a nice candelabra

Decorated mantle with greenery, ribbon, and a nice candelabra

Part of the fun of the holiday season is “decking the halls” and decorating for the season. By bringing the symbols of the season into our homes, for festivity and communion, we are able to deeply align with the living earth and her turning seasons. And the symbols of this particular season, at the winter solstice, span back millennia: deep red berries and dark green conifers, trails of ivy, mistletoe, and other evergreens. Adding to this, the symbols of the season are also reflected in mythology, such as the battle between the Oak and Holly king and the Goddess Frigga’s wheel of the year.  These symbols have been with us for centuries in one form or another, and weaving in and out of whatever dominant tradition that is present.  And so, in this post, I will explore how we might use natural materials, gathered lovingly from the living earth, to create our own holiday decorations: holly, ivy, various dried grasses, conifers, and more.  This can compliment, supplement, or even replace purchased decorations and can be returned harmlessly to the living earth after the holiday season is over.

 

I’m going to start with some background and reasons why you might want to go a “handmade” and “grown” route, offer suggestions on things to forage and find, discuss the spirit and magical work of creating and crafting, and then talk about some easy ways you can make simple holiday decorations.

 

Why Handmade/Grown Decorations

As a druid concerned with my own ecological impact and who engages in serious land healing, putting up a tree or figuring out how to decorate always represents an ethical conundrum. Obviously, I don’t want a plastic tree, as plastic trees are just another commercialized commodity. In fact, holiday decorations are a serious industry; in 2011, Americans spent somewhere around $6,000,000,000 on decorations. This land–and landfills–are now filled with inflatable snowmen, icicle lights, and even these crazy laser shows you can project on your houses, and more. These decorations are easy to purchase, easy to use and certainly, easy to throw away.  Even holiday greenery, like fresh greens, are now a commodity to be purchased anywhere from your local grocery store to big box store. To me, I want to steer clear of commercialized holiday decorations because it feeds into the cycle of purchase-use-quickly throw away and because I can’t be sure of the manufacturing processes or ecological impact on the earth. Even a used plastic tree is problematic to me–I’m not into the facsimile, I want something real. I want it to smell real and be real.

 

Basket with home-cut log, iron face, dried grasses, and greenery

Basket with home-cut log, iron face, dried grasses, and greenery

And yet, a typical living tree also presents an ethical issue.  As someone working to live a nurturing and regenerative lifestyle, I don’t want to purchase a living tree that would be cut down so I can enjoy it in my house for a month. I think as I gain experience as a woodworker and I could put the whole tree to use, I might begin to feel differently. But at this point, putting up a tree in my house for a month to celebrate the turning wheel of the seasons simply aren’t worth a life of another being.  To address this, a lot of people opt for the “living tree” in a pot or with a root ball as an option, but they are often quite expensive and/or hard to source (around here, all you can only find cut trees; my town claims to be the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World” and takes great pride in high quality cut trees, so there isn’t much of a market for anything else). Long term, I might cultivate an evergreen in a pot and bring it in each year for the holiday season so that I kept using the same one again and again (otherwise, this home would be filled with conifers (not fruit trees) in a few short years!

 

And so, with this conundrum brewing and family quickly approaching for a festive feast on the 25th, this year, I decided to continue explore decking the halls the old fashioned way–with help from nature herself.

 

Gathering and Foraging Decoration Materials

Many different decorating materials from the land

Many different decorating materials from the land

Long before big box stores and plastic commodities, the only thing that was available was what nature herself provided–this is why we have evergreens and reds for this time of year: looking on the landscape, that’s what is available right now. Before commercialization, this was the only way to decorate–and I think its worth exploring how we might get back there.

 

Of course, the question of what to source and how to source it is a good one. If you are going to use real live materials for your decorations, you might start by seeing what is available in your surroundings (and I’ve offered a bit of a guide below) and even scope things out earlier in the year. I have found that its relatively easy to find materials even when I was renting: particularly, from friends, neighbors, family, or your own land.

 

My friend Jason helping me prune branches that will turn into my "tree"

My friend Jason helping me prune branches that will turn into my “tree”

Now, at my new land, I’m going to save “yearly pruning” of holly, ivy, and various evergreens for the Yule season–this way, any material that I want to use can be pruned and then immediately used for decorations. Often, people (think elderly relatives and neighbors) are happy for you to prune back some of their greenery–all of this makes excellent bases for creating whatever you want: holiday baskets, swags, mantle displays, and even, a “creative” tree-shaped creation. So let’s take a look at some useful materials you might use for “natural” decorations for the holiday:

Conifers

Most conifers make really nice holiday decorations–and certainly, they form the background of the “evergreen” that helps remind us of spring even in the darkest time of the year. Like anything else, they dry out and drop needles, and so finding ones that hold their needles longer is helpful if you want your decorations to last.

  • Fir trees: Many fir trees are prized for their uses for swags, wreaths, and living Yule trees.  They smell great and hold their needles for a long time.  They also aren’t too prickly to work with.
  • Blue Spruce: Blue spruce is a very prickly conifer but is quite beautiful.  If you want to work with it, I suggest you wear leather gloves. It has a really firm and strong branch and needle structure, and so, it makes a nice Yule tree, it is also good for baskets and swags.
  • White Spruce: I actually did most of my decorations this year out of white spruce, primarily because I had a lot of it to trim to make more light in my garden. It makes particularly nice wreaths as it is pliable, bendable, and won’t stab you like its blue counterpart. It also lays nicely over mantles, etc.
  • White Pine: White pine is a very feathery tree with long, soft needles that are very bendy.  It makes nice basket decorations and also nice wreaths (like white spruce).  My family used these as holiday trees for many years because we had planted them, and as kids, we always played games to see who could manage to hang the ornament on the tree on the first try (as the White Pines don’t hold ornaments well).
  • Red Pine/Jack Pine: Red pine and Jack pine are both more firm with smaller, more prickly needles.  They work great for swags, baskets, or a “constructed tree”.
  • Eastern Hemlock: Hemlock is very abundant where I live but makes extremely poor holiday decorations because the needles will drop within 2-3 days of the branches being cut. As much as I love the hemlock tree, this is one to keep outside. 

    Three pruned branches I wired together for my "tree"

    Three pruned branches I wired together for my “tree”

Evergreen Materials and Berries

Evergreen materials that are non-conifer in nature are also amazing to work with for holiday decorations.  Many of these are often planted or foragable in the wild.

  • Bittersweet vine: Bittersweet is considered an “invasive” vine in many parts of the US, and this time of year, it still holds onto its lovely red berries.  You can weave these into wreaths, mantle pieces, and more.  I had a lot of this when I lived in Michigan and I would make lovely wreaths and such each year with it.
  • Holly: Holly shrubs also produce holly berries, which gives us two of the most common colors for the holiday season.  They are evergreen and hold their shape and berries long after they dry out, making them useful for all sorts of decorations. Even when fully dry, it keeps its shape and color quite nicely (although once in a while the berries will pop off).
  • Ivy: I love working with Ivy as a holiday decoration.  I usually use it to wrap around other wreaths or as a mantle decoration.  Even when fully dry, it keeps a nice dark green color for several months.
  • Periwinkle: Periwinkle is a low, evergreen, ground cover that often moves into forests in a mat and prevents other plants from growing–so take as much as you want.  Its hard to pull out, but you can cut it close to the ground and make wreaths, etc.
  • Wintergreen: I like to use small amounts of wintergreen plants for small decorations.  They are small and low growing, but are evergreen and smell wonderful. Use only if abundant.
  • Partridge Berry: Like wintergreen, this is a small low-growing evergreen that often has red berries. Given its symbolism, I like to use this (or wintergreen, above) in the place of mistletoe, which does not grow around here.

 

A good place to cut back the ivy and use it or decorations!

A good place to cut back the ivy and use it or decorations!

Other Materials

You can look for what is around you for materials to finish out your holiday decorations:

  • Lichens: Certain parts of the country (north and south of me) are in areas that produce usnea and other lichens that have a silvery appearance; these are nice to weave into decorations (and use medicinally!)
  • Dried Grasses and Plants: I love using dried grasses and plants. Sometimes, I will brush some gold acrylic paint onto these to really make them pop.  My favorites include milkweed pods, dried goldenrod, dried lobelia, and more.  Take a walk in any field and you will find tons of nice things you can add.
  • Pine Cones: Can be added to many holiday decorations and, again, brushed with gold or silver for extra effect.
  • Popcorn: Stringing popcorn is a fun activity to do with friends and family and really compliments other natural decorations.

 

Additional Supplies

In addition to your foragable materials, the following supplies will help you make some great decorations:

  • Various pruning shears (small and large)
  • Green wire (for flowers)
  • Wire cutters and pliers
  • Thicker wire if you are going to be doing heavier pieces (like big wreaths, swags, or a tree “hack”)
  • Red and Gold ribbon (red, gold), preferably wired. This ribbon can be used and reused again and again.
  • Gold paint you can spray or brush on
  • Hot glue for certain projects
Some supplies

Some supplies

Bringing in the Spirit

I think part of the magic of finding your own materials is bringing in that energy and honoring the plants that you are gathering.  When I gather, I like to ask permission and honor any tree or plant that I take from.  I explain to the spirits of the plant and the land what I would like to do, and invite them into my home as I harvest the decorations and craft them.  This adds an additional magic-filled element to the preparation of these decorations.

 

I also think that crafting decorations for the Winter Solstice a few days before the solstice can help you get into the “spirit” of the season, bringing you in alignment with the everlasting qualities of the dark conifers–they stay green, and they give us the promise of spring.  Handling them, smelling them, infusing our homes and hearths with them, helps us accept the darkness and work to move beyond our own darkness.

Making Simple Decorations

Now that you’ve done your foraging and have a pile of potential decorations around you, you can start crafting it into various kinds of decorations.   These aren’t hard to make and with a bit of effort and perseverance, you can have some great decorations. Here are some options:

 

Baskets, Planters, and Vases

Baskets and vases full of greenery are about the easiest things to make and will certainly give you some easy success. Stuff some greenery in a vase, maybe add some dried grasses and berries, and then, add a bow. This year, I used old planters (that still were half full of dirt) and easily made a few baskets in under a half hour.  You can do the same with smaller vases, mason jars, and so on; really anything that has some weight to it that will hold greenery.

A simple outdoor basket -- greenery and a bow

A simple outdoor basket — greenery, dead grasses and goldenrod, and a bow

Wreaths and Swags

Wreaths are simply a circle with a hollow in the middle, and can be easily made by finding pliable conifers and wiring them together (fir, white spruce, and white pine make particularly good wreaths).  Simply place them in a circle, get green wire, and wire every four to six inches.  Then, you can wrap it with ribbon and do any final trimming necessary. Then find a nice place to hang it!

 

Swags are simply an easier kind of greenery wall display than a wreath.  You wire some branches together, add some berries and a bow, and add a hanging hook. These can replace pictures or even be added above a door, on a table, etc.

Preparing to wire the wreath

Preparing to wire the wreath

 

Completed wreath: wire, ribbon, and white spruce - beautiful!

Completed wreath: wire, ribbon, and white spruce – beautiful!

 

Mantles and Windowsills

A really easy way to use the greenery, berries, and grasses is for decorated windowsills and mantles. These allow you to have some festive cheer without necessarily having to “construct” anything. To do this, simply lay greenery in a pleasing way along your windowsills, add some ribbon or a bow, or candles. Even a few ornaments look nice in these displays.  For mine, I primarily used holly and ivy, as I had a lot of that material and it lays well.

Lovely windowsill decor with a candle

Lovely windowsill decor with a candle

The Home Constructed Tree

As I mentioned above, I made my own yule tree this year.  I had a number of branches to cut down to make more light in my winter garden (photos above), and I was determined to do something nice with them beyond simply compost them. And so, after about a half hour to an hour of wiring and pruning, I managed to get the three large branches wired together and in the house. I used strong steel wire and plyers.  Then, I carried it indoors and set it up in a tree stand. It actually worked, and from nearly every angle, looks like a weepy yet wonderful tree!

My "constructed" tree

My “constructed” tree

 

Conclusion

Once the holiday season is concluded (for me, I usually leave decorations up through the dark month of January and take them down just before Imbolc), I will gather these materials back up, save the bows for next season, and add everything to my compost bed.  Everything from these will be returned to the land to participate in the cycle of life. I hope that everyone has a blessed and wonderful winter solstice! I will be taking a few weeks off from blogging until after the New Year. Blessings of the holiday season and the darkest time of year.