Tree of the Month, Dec 2021 American Holly (Ilex opaca)

by Martin (Mort) Schmidt for Simply Living

Holly has long been associated with the holiday seasons. In fact, the name “Holly” is derived from the word “holy” because of this association. Holly is primarily a southeastern tree, but its natural range does extend into the southernmost counties of Ohio.

Left – American Holly leaves and berries. Center – Directly behind person, unusually large Holly tree, by Central Ohio standards. Right – Holly sapling, showing pyramidal shape characteristic of young trees. Photos by Mort Schmidt.

Ilex opaca, or American Holly, is one of the many Ohio trees with alternately-arranged simple leaves. The dark green leaves are 3-4 inches long, smooth, and have distinct sharply-pointed tips. Even more distinctive is the fact that Holly leaves remain on the tree through winter. This trait makes it an evergreen, despite the fact that it is a broadleaf and not a conifer. Holly reaches a height of 50 to 60 feet in warmer climates, but is normally shrubby in Ohio. The bark is thin, smooth, and light gray, and not especially distinctive, but the pointed leaves are generally all you need for identification. The tree has small flowers with four creamy white petals in spring, and in fall and winter, bright red berries. But because Holly is dioecious, you will only find berries on
female trees, and only if male trees are available to fertilize them. Holly is popular for landscaping, and according to the USDA’s Silvics of North America, Hardwoods, there are over 1,000 cultivars.

Left – American Holly range map, USDA Silvics of North America, Hardwoods. Right – Holly flowers, Photo courtesy of Alan Cresslar, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Because of its small size, Holly is not a major lumber species, especially in Ohio. However, because Holly is one of the lightest-colored woods and the grain is nearly invisible, it’s prized for use in inlays and small decorative items. Holly has a Janka hardness of 1,020 lbf and a Specific Gravity of 0.64 (the SG of water is 1.0). Of the roughly 70 Ohio trees for which I collected hardness data, Walnut’s in the middle, with a hardness of 1,010 lbf and a SG of 0.55. The grain is interlocking, which makes it somewhat hard to work with, but split resistant. Its split resistance, moderate hardness, smoothness, and light color make Holly useful for carvings, mirror and brush handles, engravings, and at one time, rulers and scales on scientific equipment. These traits, and its readiness to take stain, make Holly useful as an Ebony substitute for piano keys and violin tuning
pegs. Like most light-colored woods, Holly has little rot resistance. It has moderate fuel value as firewood, and while the wood is split resistant, splitting is seldom necessary due to the trees’ small size. And of course, Holly is widely used for Christmas decorations.

Holly berries are very popular with birds, especially cedar waxwings. White tail deer sometimes browse on the leaves. Although spines presumably make the leaves less palatable, Holly is Ohio’s only native tree with green winter leaves.

Some regard Holly as having medicinal value, but there is mixed information on its toxicity. According to Pinkie’s Parlour on the Angelfire website, “Twenty berries can kill a person”. The University of Texas Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center also indicates that “the fruits are poisonous to people”. But According to the USDA Silvics Manual, “Despite the presence of saponins in the leaves and berries, American Holly is not considered poisonous to man or animals”. And, “Although not as well known as gallberry (Ilex glabra) as a honey plant, its nectar makes excellent honey”. The conflicting information might be attributable to differences in various species of Holly.

According to Alice Thoms Vitale’s Leaves, in Myth, Magic, & Medicine, the Indians brewed tea from holly leaves to heal measles, and tea from burnt leaves to ease whooping cough. A poultice of hot leaves and bark was applied to broken bones and dislocated joints to reduce pain. Fred Hageneder’s The Meaning of Trees indicates that the Iroquois made a tea from the bark of Gray
Holly to induce vomiting and treat psychological problems. The Angelfire site says that “In folk medicine it was believed that if you beat someone with holly until they bled, it would cure chilblains”.

Holly was widely regarded as offering protection from lightning, witches, and the evil eye. Like mistletoe and many conifers, Holly’s evergreen properties were linked to magical powers. But there’s also a darker side. Holly is one of several trees (including Dogwood, Redbud, and Quaking Aspen) associated with the crucifixion of Christ. The Meaning of Trees describes a Swiss legend in
which the palm fronds used to welcome Christ to Jerusalem turned to spiny Holly when the crowd shouted “Crucify him”. But then, Holly is also associated with Christmas. Pinkie’s Parlour explains that to the ancient Romans, Holly was the sacred plant of Saturn, and was used to celebrate Saturnalia. Early Christians decorated with Holly to blend in, and when Christianity replaced paganism, Holly kept its place as a holiday decoration.

Vitale’s Leaves tells of an English legend which instructs young women to place nine Holly leaves in a three-cornered handkerchief, tie it with nine knots, and lay it on her pillow in order to see her future husband in a dream. (Obviously, the European legends were attached to some species other than the American Holly). Various other legends claim that Holly brings pleasant dreams. With or without Holly, may you have sweet dreams during the holiday season.

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