Amid the barren bleakness of winter, the holly tree stands out, lush and green with bright red berries. We use this plant to decorate our homes at Christmas, some of us fiercely guarding the berries against birds. But as we have been decorating our homes with holly for centuries, so have the birds been eating the berries. An English native, it’s part of us, our history and our folklore, and it’s also part of our wildlife.

Ilex aquifolium is one of a number of species often referred to as English holly, which usually form a small evergreen tree or shrub with a conical or cylindrical crown. Most species have smooth, silvery-grey bark, green twigs and alternate leathery leaves with wavy, spiny margins. Some English hollies have variegated leaves, but most are a deep dark green.

Flowers on a female holly tree

Holly flowers are tiny at only 6mm across but they provide a source of nectar and pollen for bees.
Photograph: Alamy

Plants are either male or female. In both sexes the flowers are borne in small clusters on old wood. Each flower is tiny – around 6mm in diameter and white, with four petals. Only male flowers are fragrant; only female plants produce berries – in some species these are yellow but most are a bright scarlet red, contrasting beautifully with the deep dark green of the evergreen leaves.

The name holly comes from the Anglo-Saxon word holegn. In pagan folklore the holly is personified as a mythical figure called the Holly King, who rules nature between the summer and winter solstices. He’s often depicted as an old man wearing a wreath of holly on his head and walking with a stick made from a holly branch.

The early Romans gave boughs of holly to friends during the festival of Saturnalia – a celebration of Saturn and the winter solstice. Christian legend suggests that holly sprang up under the footsteps of Christ, the leaves’ spines representing the crown of thorns and the red berries the drops of his blood. The name holly derived from “holy tree”; Jesus’ cross was allegedly made from holly wood.

By the 15th century, holly was used to decorate churches at Christmas. It was also used to decorate houses, and small plants were even used as indoor Christmas trees.

Holly blue butterfly (Lycaenopsis argiolus)

The caterpillars of the holly blue butterfly (Lycaenopsis argiolus) eat holly leaves, buds and flowers.
Photograph: Alamy

Many of us notice holly only in winter, but its value to wildlife goes beyond Christmas: bees visit its flowers for nectar and pollen, caterpillars of the holly blue butterfly and various moths eat its buds, flowers and leaves. Many species of bird nest in holly, using its spiny leaves for protection. Blackbirds, fieldfares, redwings and thrushes eat the berries. Holly leaves are slow to break down, so hedgehogs, small mammals, toads and slow worms hibernate in the deep leaf litter that builds up beneath the trees.

It’s not too late to plant holly. Between now and late February they are available to buy as bareroot plants, and may be used as part of a mixed native wildlife hedge or grown individually where they will add evergreen interest to the winter garden. They’re slow to get going – I planted one three years ago and it’s still a tiny little thing. I don’t yet know if it’s male or female but I’m happy to wait. It’s satisfying enough having a small piece of history, folklore and wildlife growing in my back garden.

Rachel De Thame

Gardener at BBC Gardeners World
Rachel de Thame is a UK gardening expert and TV presenter, born in Camden in London, England, popular on the BBC Gardeners World program.