Herbs in History: Holly


Ilex aquifolium L.


By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | December 2023

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Illustration 1: Ilex aquifolium L.


If there is a plant that best symbolizes the perennity of nature at the winter solstice that triggers dormancy of nature, it is holly (Ilex aquifolium L.) (Illustration 1), with its deep green and glossy leaves and its shiny-red berries that illuminate the dark wintery evenings. And it is also typical of these days of the year, in crowns at the door of the house, as a bunch hung to chandeliers, or in branches adorning tables and the Christmas and end-of-year dinners.
Native to South-West Europe from Greece to Portugal, and North-West Africa and from Morocco to Scandinavia (Illustration 2), it is remarkable in a forestal and natural or garden and landscaped environment thanks to the almost bright, dark-green color of its leaves, the luminous red dots of its berries, and, at closer look, its aggressively acerate spikes. Its ever-green perennity that seems to emanate from a natural strength and power, is contrasted in a certain way by its slow growth and moderate heigth, reaching no more than 30 to 40 feet (in spite of occasional individuals of 50 feet) and a diameter that does not usually exceeds 2 feet.
Its wood is of particular interest: it is dense, hard, and strong. If it is well dried and seasoned, it polishes well and is of a beautiful white color. It is no surprise that it is a favorite of cabinet makers. In the past, the heartwood of mature trees was used for printing blocks, engravings, and turnery.

Illustration 2: Distribution of Ilex aquifolium L. according to Plants of the World Online (POWO)


Because of its native distribution, essentially in south-central Europe, holly was not well known  in Classical Antiquity. Literature about it and its uses is not abundant contrary to what it is for more typical Mediterranean plants.

Illustration 3: Holly in a 14th century manuscript (London, British Library, Sloane 4016, folio 14 recto)

Although holly was used among Pre-Roman centro-western Europe and Nordic populations it is not attested in the medieval scientific literature typical of this area. This is clearly the case in the Old-English Herbal and the other similar manuals of therapeutic of similar origin and time (9th and 10th centuries), which record the medicinal uses of the plants typical of centro-western and northern Europe. holly appears only lately in the written documentation, in the 14th century, with no illustration before that time (Illustration 3).

In spite of this, holly can be traced in classical Greek and Latin scientific works as the following cited here in chronological order: Inquiry into Plants by Theophrastus (ca. 370-ca. 287 BCE), the Father of Botany; possibly De materia medica by Dioscorides (1st cent. CE); and, more clearly though not abundantly, Natural History by Pliny (23/34-79 CE).

Typically enough—though not surprising bearing in mind the distribution of holly—the major source of information is Pliny, Natural History. Pliny does not devote any substantial part of his work to it, but refers to it in an unmistakable way in several occasions. Again, this is probably indicative of a certain lack of interest in both the tree as such and its medicinal uses, even though we will bring to light some information that might seem to contradict this first impression.
Under the name aquifolium, Pliny defines holly as an evergreen tree (16.80), with two species (16.19), of which one has leaves similar to those of a plant “called by some Greeks smilax” (= Bindweed, Smilax aspera L.), with acerate spikes (16.90). Both species have a small fruit, which Pliny describes in a correct way (15.101).
More importantly, Pliny provides a key to trace holly in the ancient Greek scientific and medical literature where it is not clearly present at first glance. This is probably the result of the native distribution of holly, which extends more toward West than East, covering continental Greece, but not the island and certainly not Asia Minor (now Turkey), which was part of the Greek World in Antiquity.
Pliny provides a Greek term that is the equivalent of the Latin aquifolium name of holly (27.63). Though useful, this key does not yield much information. In the Inquiry into plants by Theophrastus, indeed, holly is defined as an evergreen tree, which is difficult—if not impossible—to cultivate and grows in both mountains and plains, particularly in high and very cold positions.
The case of Dioscorides is more difficult. It was not clarified until the Renaissance and the scholarly efforts of the physician and botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577). In the many versions and editions of his translation of, and commentary on, Dioscorides, De materia medica, Mattioli gradually came to an identification of holly. His long and repeated analyses of both Dioscorides’ text and the many works devoted to it in the 16th century were not demonstrative until he did not provide an illustration of the plant (Illustration 4), in which we recognize holly without any doubt.

Illustration 4: Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Translation of, and commentary on, Dioscorides, De materia medica, 1565, page 161


Rare medicinal uses

Assuming that Mattioli’s identification of the tree described by Dioscorides (1.92) is indeed holly, we can report its medicinal uses as did Dioscorides, according to its parts. The seed, said to be “greasy and glutinous”, was used in internal use (a potion) to treat coughs, to break bladder stones, and against snake bites. The leaves and root are astringent and efficacious in cases of diarrhea in internal use (drink), in addition to being diuretic and helping against poisons and wild animals’ bites. The root, specifically, applied in external use, is dissolutive of recent skin excrescences and swellings.

Pliny clearly attests to some more familiarity in the uses and better knowledge of holly (24.116), even though he does not report numerous indications contrary to what is often the case. Just like Dioscorides and according to the ancient standard procedure in the analysis of materia medica, he distinguishes the several parts of the tree.
The leaves crushed and mixed with salt are efficacious against diseases of the articulations.
The berries are good for menstruation, coeliac trouble, dysentery, and excess of bile, probably in internal use. In a similar way with wine, they help in cases of diarrhea.
Roots boiled in an unspecified liquid (probably water) are used externally in affusions, to extract objects inserted in the flesh of which one would assume that they might be splinters, plant thorns, and other small matters accidentally introduced under the skin. They are also particularly useful for dislocations and swellings.

From medicine to household, magic, and tradition

All ancient authors agree that holly wood is solid, and even sturdy as Dioscorides explicitly says. This is how Theophrastus, before him, reports that its wood was used to make walking-sticks (Inquiry into plants 5.7.7.). Much later, Pliny stated (16.230) that its wood provided the substance to make levers in the time of Cato usually identified as the Elder (234-149 BCE), undoubtedly because it is hard and would not easily break. This reference to Cato is significant, as it hints at an ancient tradition of the type that Cato was adamantly defending against the novelties of his time.
At the same time, this use of holly as a sturdy, probably unbreakable wood for engineering, went together with another one, in cabinet-making, which suggests a great mastery of the tree (Pliny 16.231):

The principal woods for cutting into layers and for using as a veneer to cover other kinds of wood are … holly …

A further sign of this close contact with, and knowledge of, holly is provided by Pliny (24.116). Interestingly, in reporting folk traditions, he refers to the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (570-490 BCE). Though native to Samos, Phythagoras moved circa 530 BCE to Southern Italy, where he died. According to Pliny:

… Pythagoras has recorded that by its blossom water is solidified …

Following this, Pliny reports another Pythagorean theory through a small scene staging somebody throwing a stick made of holly wood to an animal:

… if, because it was not thrown with sufficient energy, it misses the animal, the stick will move by itself to the target, since there is such a powerful nature in the tree.

This text has been traditionally interpreted in a different way, with the stick returning to the thrower in the way of a boomerang. A close examination of the terms used by Pliny does not allows for such understanding and favors, instead, the translation here, with the stick moving spontaneously to the target.  At any rate, returning to his own time, Pliny reports (24.116) that:

… a holly tree planted in a town or country house keeps off magic influences …

The magical power of holly might have also been at play in the end-of-year celebrations of Rome which, in the Julian calendar, corresponded to the winter solstice. It symbolized the perennity of nature, its life cycle, and the return of the sunny days of summer.
With the transition of the Roman World from paganism to Christianity, this ritual was preserved and transformed, and holly became the plant par excellence of Jesus’ birth and Christmas. It also took on another meaning through its acuminate leaves and spikes, and its red berries like blood drops. In this view, it took a completely different—diametrically opposed—meaning, with the passion and death of Jesus.
This new meaning did not eclipse the salutary value of holly credited in the Middle Ages with the property of restoring vision to victims of cecity. A perfect, if not the best, illustration of the suggestive power of holly, related to perennity, the life cycle of nature, the seasons with the darkest days of winter and the light of summer.

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