Saturday, 17 December 2016

Tree Lore: Holly

Botanical painting of Holly


According to the medieval Brehon laws of Ireland, if someone was caught illegally felling a holly tree the culprit was obliged to owe the landowner the hefty fee of two milking cows.

During that time period trees were categorised into four divisions according to their cultural and practical value. The highest value division was the Airig Fedo division.

Airig Fedo is a Gaelic phrase meaning Nobles of the Woods.

Only 7 native trees were bestowed the lofty status of a noble: oak, hazel, yew, ash, pine, apple and holly (1).

What made holly a valuable tree was its tough, heavy wood which was favoured, during those times, for making spears and chariot axles – both understandably much-valued items during the periods of strife that was widespread during that era.

Holly was also an essential fodder crop. The nutritious, evergreen leaves of holly were the perfect fodder crop for livestock during the lean months of winter.

Holly leaves were an important winter fodder in parts of Ireland as recently as the 1950’s, until replaced by hay as the primary winter fodder (2).

Holly, Ilex aquifolium

Alternative names:    Hulver Bush, Holm, Holy tree, Christ’s Thorn, European Holly, Common Holly, English Holly.

Family: Aquifoliaceae

Distribution:   Generally common in Ireland and Britain, often found as an understory tree of native, deciduous woodlands or part of a hedgerow system. Found throughout most of central and south Europe.


Glossy, dark green, upper leaf surface. Under the surface of the leaf is light green.

Holly is evergreen. Its characteristic, spiny leaves are present throughout the year

Flowers: Fragrant, white, four-petalled & small (6-10mm). Unusually, the petals have a leathery, waxy texture. The flowers originate from the leaf axils (the junction between the leaf stem (petiole) and the twig it's attached to).

The distinctive, 4-petalled white flower of holly

Buds: Small (2-3mm long), green, hairless and pointed.

Bark: In its youth, holly bark is smooth and usually of a light grey colour. With age, the bark becomes progressively rougher. There can also be a number of small protuberances protruding from mature bark.

The bark of mature holly is noticeably rougher in texture and appearance and can have a number of small bumps on the bark

Profile: Holly is generally a small tree, and slow growing. The overall shape is often domed or conical. Often, holly trees will refuse to take on a neat shape and have a somewhat scraggly, dishevelled appearance.

The overall appearance of holly trees can be a little on the unruly side

Berries: Female holly trees produce clusters of striking, coral-red berries.

Poisonous to humans but edible for a lot of wildlife.

Important food item for winter-visiting, migratory thrush species such as the fieldfare, Trudus pilaris, and redwing, Turdus iliacus. Often, mixed flocks of both species can be seen descending on berry-laden hollies during winter – gobbling away to their heart's content.

The hard berries of holly soften after exposure to frost and provide much needed, cold-weather sustenance for not only for bird species but also some mammal species, such as the red squirrel and pine marten (very partial to berries, despite its fearsome reputation).

The striking red berries of holly – an important winter survival food for quite a few mammal and bird species


The holly is a great bushcraft tree. Below is a list of 9 bushcraft uses of the holly tree.

2.   FUEL

The branches of living holly tree possess an unusually high number of attached, dead, thin, long and flammable twigs.

They are often of ideal length, dryness and thinness for the small twig fire, and just as importantly – it’s possible to collect many dead, holly twigs in a short period of time – important if you need to get a fire going quickly.

Holly trees have an abundance of thin, long, dry dead twigs attached to living branches – they are exceptionally good kindling 

The dead wood of holly burns hot and long as a fuel.

A lot of dead wood from holly trees has, for some reason, many small holes running throughout the wood which greatly increases its combustibility (more oxygen). The holes could be the remnant burrows of wood-boring insect larvae.

Many holly trees have large dead limbs still attached to the living tree. These sizable limbs are often vertical, or near vertical, and easy to dislodge (all they often require is a sharp shove to dislodge). The more vertically aligned deadwood is, the drier it usually is (sheds rain better).

Large, dead holly branches can be easily broken into shorter lengths by bashing the dead branches over something hard e.g. a large rock/boulder. No sawing or axe sectioning is generally required. However, be careful when forcefully breaking large branches as they can jar the hands when struck or break upwards – hitting an individual in the face.

Dense, smooth and often of clean, ivory-white colour – the wood is exceptionally attractive.

Although the wood can be hard to carve, it holds a hard-wearing edge and is an ideal choice for robust carving projects, be warned – the wood can be prone to splitting at the ends when dried too quickly.

It’s important that holly wood has been dried (seasoned) gradually, especially if you are planning on using the wood for important carving projects, such as a knife handle.

Admittedly, holly is not a first choice wood for feather sticks.

It’s hard to acquire sufficient lengths of holly wood that is knot-free. Also, dead holly tends not to yield long, multiple-curled shavings when carved.

However, it’s possible to make small feather sticks from holly – it’s just that more of them are required to make a large enough mass of curls for a sure-thing fire in damp conditions – anything between 4-8 feather sticks, even more.

How many feather sticks is exactly needed depends on your feather-stick making skills and the quality of the holly wood that you are using (make sure to make plenty of thin splints as well!).

So, why bother making inferior feather sticks from Holly? There are deciduous woodlands that have a vigorous understory of holly with few other tree species present. In those instances, holly can be the best feather stick choice and since bushcraft is very much about expanding our skill sets for all eventualities…

Birch is not the only deciduous tree in town that has flammable bark.

Mature holly trees, especially standing, dead holly trees, sometimes shed a peeling bark that is flammable – certainly not as flammable as birch bark, nor does holly bark come off in the same copious quantities as birch bark – but off it comes, and it's flammable – and can give you a fire-lighting edge when you need it.

The leaves of holly, when crushed, are fantastically waxy.

Holly leaves make a first-class lubricant for the handheld (bearing block) of the bow drill.

Personally, I admire the way my drill spins in the handhold when lubricated with holly leaves. Makes drilling a lot easier which enables me to spin my drill as fast as possible with less effort.

Seriously, I’ve found holly leaves to be a great bow drill lubricant and so will you?

Occasionally, I will put a few holly leaves in my backpack when the opportunity presents itself – just in case I decide to make a bow-drill fire in a location where holly trees are absent.

Not a whole lot of deciduous tree species naturally produce straight branches.

Of course, some tree species when coppiced, such as hazel and sweet chestnut, produce an abundance of straight branches. Un-coppiced holly is generous in its gift of straight branches.

Strong, long and tough – the straight branches that grow as secondary growth on the larger branches or a basal growth at the bottom of the main tree trunk have multiple, potential uses – shelter construction, throwing sticks, batons, digging sticks, arrows, walking staffs, spring traps and pot suspension are just a few applications for the straight, tough and long branches of holly.

It’s not hard to see why, historically, holly branches were once used for making spears and chariot axles.

Straight and strong branches growing from the base of a holly tree. Holly branches are also quite elastic 

An unusual application of holly. The dense, evergreen canopy of holly can provide a discreet, well-sheltered site.

Many holly trees have a canopy that reaches close to or to, the ground. Such trees are great for wildlife observation, or as a sheltered spot for sitting out inclement weather (while getting a quick brew on) or as a discreet camping site.

Just be mindful of the spiny leaf litter of hollies – some form of barrier is required to comfortably sit or lie under a holly tree. Alternatively – clear away the holly leaf litter from under the tree.

Bonus: the thick evergreen canopy of holly tends to disperse campfire smoke very well – important if you want to maintain a low-impact presence in an area.

The thick, leathery leaves of holly provide great insulation for natural shelters such as the leaf-debris hut and the leaf-debris group shelter.

Rain tends to be shed off more efficiently from a shelter cocooned in holly leaves. Gathering the spiny, holly leaves can be challenging – usually, some form of hand protection is required.

However, where there are holly leaves there are obviously – holly trees, so making a nice, natural shelter under a benevolent holly canopy can provide additional weather-buffing.

The dense canopy of holly trees can provide a surprising amount of shelter



The above list of 9 bushcraft uses of holly is certainly not a comprehensive list of all bushcraft uses associated with holly.

It’s my hope that you create your own list of bushcraft uses for the holly tree – through your own bushcraft experiments.

Of course, it’s important to avail of training courses, advice, research and experience as regards progressing your bushcraft knowledge, skills and experience.

It’s also vitally important that you draw your own conclusions from your own observations, deductive reasoning and experiments.

A key asset of any serious bushcrafter that actually spends a lot of time outdoors is fostering your own ingenuity – that you strive to acquire the confidence and get-go attitude to create and improvise for yourself.

Learn to trust your own ideas, and test them (as safely as possible). If they fail, so what? At least you tried and learned something about what works and doesn’t work.

When you succeed you will plant a seed of confidence in yourself to trust your own observations.

This is important.

Books, training courses, other sources of valid bushcraft information etc. will only get you so far.

Wild places are variable at the best of times – they demand a flexible mindset to overcome some of the inevitable challenges that wild places will occasionally throw at you.

This is especially important if you plan on visiting, alone or with a group, wilderness areas. It’s also important in survival scenarios.

Besides, figuring things out for yourself can be surprisingly satisfying – even fun. Whether it's experimenting with unusual bushcraft applications of holly, or modifying a natural shelter design – it's important that you occasionally flex and strengthen your ability to try things differently – on your own terms.

The art of applying competent, safe and novel ideas in a bushcraft setting, is a practice that improves with regular application. I will explore this theme more fully in a future article, so keep tuned . For now, I hope you enjoy becoming (re)acquainted with a fantastic bushcraft tree – holly.


Finally, I’m going to briefly step onto my environmental soap box and share a message I think is important.

In many places, there has been a serious decline in female holly trees due to the custom of cutting down berry-laden holly branches for Christmas.

Often there is a disproportionate ratio of male to female holly trees with male trees greatly outnumbering female holly trees because of a local decimation of female holly trees.

If you are considering collecting holly berries, please refrain from doing so. Wild berries serve a much more vital function in nature – certainly more important than human decoration. The true Bushcrafter cares about nature and tries, when possible, to enhance a woodland rather than unnecessarily deplete its natural resources.

As a holly substitute consider the foliage of invasive tree species, such as cherry laurel, Prunus laurocerasus, and rhododendron, Rhododendron ponticum. Although both species lack red berries, the foliage is certainly pretty enough for Christmas wreaths. You will also be helping to control an invasive species.


(1), (2) & (3):  Trees of Ireland, Native and Naturalized, Nelson, E. Charles and Wendy F. Walsh.

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