Perhaps one of the most easily identified plants with its spiny green leaves and bright red berries, holly is a popular plant for decorating homes in the Christmas season. But have you ever noticed where it grows?
If you have, or if you fancy going on a Great holly hunt, then help with Natural History Museum research and plot the spot where you see holly growing on the Urban tree survey online map.
The records will help scientists better understand how changes in the climate affect which trees grow where, differences across regions and how tree populations have changed over time.
At this time of year it is easy to spot the red berries. Although toxic to humans, they are an important food source for birds, lasting longer than many other fruits even after frost. The berries are found only on the female trees.
Plot your sightings on the online map by using your postcode, GPS or Ordnance Survey references, or just find the spot on the Google map. And add photos too, especially in the spring, when both the male and female trees produce clusters of small white flowers. Only the male flowers are fragrant.
‘Hollies are great ones to look out for in urban areas as they are tolerant to pollution,’ says Museum botany curator Mark Spencer. ‘Now’s a good time to record them, as some species are bearing fruit. We need the public’s help to better understand where they are growing in our towns and cities.’
Jonathon Gregson, flowering plants curator at the Museum adds, ‘As well as getting a picture of tree distribution, the urban tree survey is hoping to track changes in trees’ flowering or fruiting times, which could be a result of climate change. The more data we get, the closer we will be to understanding how our trees are faring.’
There are many ancient hollies around the UK as it was one of the earliest trees to colonise the island after the last glacial period. Holly comes from the Anglo-Saxon word holegn and some hedges are known to date to before 1700.
Decorating houses and churches with holly at Christmas has been a practice for hundreds of years. Small hollies were used as indoor Christmas trees before conifers were introduced.
With such a long history in the UK, there is a lot of folklore surrounding the plant. Holly has been thought of as unlucky to cut down or trim, and has also been used to ward off lightning and witches!
Hollies are a large group of deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs found in almost all parts of the world. There are about 400 holly species with most growing in Asia and the Americas.
The most well-known is the common or European holly Ilex aquifolium. Leaves of some holly species contain caffeine and are used to make a stimulating tea, such as yerba maté, made from the leaves of Ilex paraguayensis.