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 trees, tree energy, seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.
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.
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!