Not being a great one for tinsel and baubals, I generally opt for some sprigs of holly and ivy when decorating my home for the Yuletide festivities. So I thought it was time to have a quick look at the herbal lore and uses attributed to these beautiful evergreen plants.
Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Boughs made from the glossy leaves and scarlet berries of Holly have been used to decorate homes at the winter festivals of Yuletide and Saturnalia, since ancient times. Early Christians are thought to have adopted the practice, to deck churches with evergreen boughs, from their contemporary Pagan cousins. Ancient Romans believed that Holly could protect their homes from poison, lightening and witchcraft. It’s not difficult to understand why, given the spiky, defensive structure of many holly leaves. Planting holly bushes close to homes was thought to infer this protection.
The leaves, berries and bark of Holly have been employed in herbal remedies over the years. The berries quickly cause vomiting (they were used a purgative) but the leaves (of several Ilex varieties) have long been used as a tea substitute in Germany and Brazil. The leaves have been thought to help with catarrh, smallpox and pleurisy. They contain a bitter alkaloid called Ilicin which promotes perspiration. Traditionally Holly leaves have been used to treat intermittent fevers and rheumatism. The berries, when dried and powdered are astringent and have been used traditionally to stop bleeding.
Gathering holly for medicinal purposes is best done in May and June, at about noon time when they are dry of dew. Gathering holly for decorative purposes should be done with respect for the plant, taking just a little, without harm. I like to return the holly to the foot of the plant I have cut it from, when I take my decorations down. It feels much more respectful to do this and hopefully the plant will benefit a little as the dried branches slowly rot down. Holly can be found growing in hedgerows, as specimens in gardens and within woodlands. There is plenty growing in central Amsterdam.
Ivy (Hedera helix)
Glossy, beautiful, angular Ivy grows easily in pots and makes a great addition to balconies. It sticks so well to walls, with its amazing vertical fibre support system, that it will easily pull the mortar out from between brickwork if the plant is pulled off. However Ivy is said to be one of the only plants that keeps walls dry, it’s leaves acting as a protective and beautiful curtain. The fibres become true roots when they meet water, until then they help ivy to attach firmly to the most unlikely surfaces.
Ivy is favoured by many birds for nesting and its berries provide a rich source of nectar for bees. Ivy has the amazing ability to transform itself in many ways when it reaches unrestricted light, such as at the tops of trees or walls. It then produces softer looking, ovate leaves and bunches of pretty flowers on a strong bush like structure.
There is some much lore associated with ivy. Like Holly, Ivy has been used to decorate homes since ancient Pagan times. Poets’ wreaths are made from ivy leaves, as is the wreath of Bacchus. It was thought that gently boiling bruised ivy leaves in wine would remove the wines powers of intoxication. Perhaps the alcohol simply boiled away? Perhaps not. Ivy has long been a sign of fidelity and was given to newly weds in ancient Greece.
One of the few traditional medicinal uses for Ivy was as relief for sunburn. Soft ivy twigs, when boiled in butter were thought to produce a useful remedy. I think I will stick with Aloe vera for now but the ivy remedy could be worth experimenting with.