The Holly Wears The Crown...
The most popular time to visit woodlands is during the spring when bluebells and wild garlic cover the ground. However, there are some colourful evergreen species which provide flashes of colour amongst the earthier tones of a winter woodland.
One which we’re all familiar with, perhaps because of its associations with Christmas and distinctive appearance, is Holly, (Ilex aquifolium). Holly is widespread across Britain, but particularly in oak and beech woodlands.
The shrub is well known for its spiky leaves, but only younger leaves and those closer to the ground tend to be prickly, with the rest being smooth-edged. This helps to protect the plant from grazing animals and betters its chances of bearing fruit and therefore reproducing.
These spikes have other advantages too – holly makes an excellent hedging plant, as it is virtually impassable for cattle (this could be one of the reasons why hedge-layers traditionally wore thick sealskin gloves to protect their hands). It also provides good protection for small birds from predators – especially in winter when there are fewer leaved trees around. In spring, look out for the beautiful holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus), which feeds on the berries and buds of the plant, and in summer and autumn you might see the rare and attractive holly parachute mushroom, (Marasmius hudsonii), which lives amongst dead holly leaves beneath the tree.
The bright red berries (technically drupes, or stone-fruit, and only found on female shrubs) are eaten by many species of birds and small mammals, such as thrush species and dormice, but are poisonous to humans, causing nausea and stomach aches. The leaves are high in calories and were in the past widely fed to cattle and sheep when other food was scarce.
Until Christmas trees were popularised by the royal family in the 1800s, holly was the principle Christmas evergreen decoration. An old custom has it that if the holly used to decorate a house at Christmas has prickly leaves then the man of the house will rule the roost for the next year: if the holly is smooth-leafed, then the woman of the house will be in charge.
Although Holly has been associated with Christmas since the medieval period, the fact that it lived on while other plants died made it a symbol of fertility and eternal life long before that, with holly branches hung inside houses (along with ivy and mistletoe) in midwinter during pagan times. These practices were then adapted by Christians, with the plant’s red berries coming to symbolize Christ’s blood, the green leaves everlasting life, and the white flowers the Virgin Mary.
Holly wood is hard, fine-grained and very pale. It is commonly used in marquetry (inlaying) as its colour contrasts well with other woods, and it makes a good walking stick, especially when coppiced.
Here are some woodlands around Wales where you can find Holly (amongst other things!) and have a nice walk this winter.
North Wales: Coed Felinrhyd & Llennyrch, Maentwrog.
These two areas of ancient woodland (defined as having continuous woodland cover since 1600) were mentioned in the Mabinogion. They are excellent examples of ‘Celtic rainforest’, with plenty of trails and waterfalls to enjoy.
South Wales: Coed Cefn, Crickhowell.
Known locally as ‘bluebell wood’, it is still well worth a trip outside of spring. There are remains of Iron Age hillfort as well as fine views over Crickhowell and the Usk valley.
Mid Wales: Coed Allt Cefn Maes Llan, Llanarth.
This ancient woodland of sessile oak, alder and ash clings to the steep sides of the Afon Llethy valley. There is a public footpath along the river which makes for a pleasant walk.