It’s an evergreen tree that can live for 500 years and grow up to 33 feet (10 meters) tall. However, it usually doesn’t live for more than 100 years or grow taller than 10 feet (3 meters). It is often associated with Christmas because people use it in wreaths and garlands, and you see it pictured on many Christmas cards. What does European (or English) holly (Ilex aquifolium), also known as Christmas holly, have to do with Christmas?
The connection to Christmas goes back to medieval times in Europe. People said that the sharp-pointed evergreen leaves reminded them of the crown of thorns Christ was forced to wear at His crucifixion. The berries, which are red during the Christmas season, reminded them of the blood Christ shed, and the white flowers stand for purity.
European holly grows as a tree or a bush. The berries are mildly toxic to people and harmful to dogs or cats. However, they provide winter food for birds, rodents, and other animals. The flowers are sources of nectar for bees and butterflies. European holly grows in shady areas in forests, and it can form a dense thicket along forest borders. Because it is a dense evergreen with sharp points, people often use it for privacy hedges.
In its native areas of Europe and other regions, holly is an ornamental plant admired for its beauty. However, since people brought it to North America’s west coast, it has become an invasive species. It thrives in the shade of forests and crowds out species native to that area. Washington state has called it a weed.
Like other plant species, European holly has an ecological niche to fill. Problems often arise when people do something to upset the balanced relationship that God has designed into nature. From the beginning, humans have done things to upset our relationship with God. That brings us back to Christmas and the reason God came to Earth in the form of a human who lived a pure life and shed His blood on the cross to redeem us. Christmas holly reminds us of that.
— Roland Earnst © 2020