20 things you didn't know about holly and ivy

Adrienne Wyper / 18 December 2018

Discover more about these plants that have become symbols of the festive season.



1. The two plants come together in the Christmas carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, reflecting their use as decorations since pagan times, when holly was thought to be male and ivy female.

2. Holly is dioecious, which means that there are male and female plants. Only female hollies bear berries, so if you’re growing holly you need at least one male plant, which will pollinate several females, nearby. To ‘sex’ a holly, look at its flowers: the males’ flowers have more prominent stamens. Shop with care, though, some names can be deceptive: ‘Golden King’ is the female holly plant and ‘Golden Queen’ the male!

Find out how to grow holly

3. Ivy, or Hedera helix, is one of the UK’s few native evergreens, with two subspecies: one that climbs, and one that spreads along the ground. ‘Helix’ means winding or spiral, which is a little misleading as ivy doesn’t wind itself around other plants’ stems.

4. Holly or Ilex aquifolium is one of the UK’s few native evergreen trees. Ilex means holm oak, a tree whose leaves are vaguely similar to holly’s, and aquifolium means pointed leaf.

5. Ivy isn't a parasite; it has its own root system and doesn’t take nutrients or water from the plant or tree it grows on.

6. Before the advent of the Victorian Christmas pine tree, holly branches had been used as decoration since Roman times, when they were brought into the home to celebrate Saturnalia, the midwinter celebration of feasting and gift-giving.

7. Ivy can sometimes kill the trees it covers, when its stems harden and become woody, as this can restrict the growth of the tree it covers.

Find out how to grow ivy

8. The higher the holly leaf, the less prickly it is. That’s for protection, because herbivores such as deer and cattle graze on leaves at lower levels.

9. Ivy plants can reach up to 30m in height and live for up to 500 years.

10. In country lore, a heavy crop of holly berries is believed to signify a hard winter to come.

11. All parts of the ivy plant are poisonous to humans, and its sap can cause skin irritation.

12. It was believed to be unlucky to cut down a holly tree, most likely due to its association with eternal life, because it flourishes through the cold days of winter when other plants die.


13. Wearing a wreath of ivy leaves on your head was believed to prevent you from getting drunk; Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and agriculture, was often depicted wearing a wreath of ivy and vine leaves. And Romans used a bunch of ivy to mark a place where wine was sold.

14. The wood of the holly tree is white, hard and heavy, and often used for making walking sticks.

15. As a symbol of intellectual standing in ancient Rome, ivy was used to crown the winners of poetry competitions.

16. In Celtic mythology, the ‘holly king’ was said to rule the period from summer to the winter solstice, when the ‘oak king’ took over.

17. In certain circumstances, ivy can help preserve historic buildings by regulating the temperature of their stonework, according to an English Heritage survey.

18. The belief that holly trees are protective against evil forces stems from the idea that malevolent spirits such as witches or the devil, would get caught up in the dense branches and snagged on the prickly leaves.

19. Both holly and ivy’s nectar, pollen and berries are important food sources for insects and birds in autumn and winter when other supplies are scarce.

20. The name Ivy was 24th in the 2017 list of most popular names given to baby girls, and Holly was 59th.

Try 12 issues of Saga Magazine for just £12

Subscribe today for just £12 for 12 issues...


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.