Notable Dulwich Trees

HOLLY - Ilex Aquifoliaceae

Approximately between 500 and 600 species of Holly are found growing worldwide, the exception being in the Arctic and Antarctic. Ilex aquifolium, Common or English Holly, is the native tree of Britain. It is to be found growing as an under-storey in Oak and Beech woodlands, where it is provided with both shade and protection from severe frost. Holly is a small conical evergreen, providing year-round interest. The tree’s bark is smooth, silvery grey, becoming knarled with age. The timber produced is smooth and white, which makes it useful for decorative veneers in cabinet and musical instrument making. Leaves are wavy, glossy green on the upper surface, paler green on the lower and famously spikey. They are waxy to the touch, thick and leathery, about 3-10 cms long and arranged alternately on green twigs. Lower leaves on the tree are spikier than those above, which tend to be ovate and smoother, an adaptation that protects the tree from grazing animals. Sheep find holly highly palatable, and shepherds often cut holly as a feed for their livestock. Plants are male or female; both carry creamy white flowers, but only the female berries, usually red, but sometimes yellow. Strictly speaking, this fruiting body is a ‘drupe’, not a berry. A berry encloses its seeds in soft flesh, e.g. a gooseberry. The holly drupe contains three or more small stones surrounded by flesh, like a plum. Decorative and excellent for hedging, Holly provides cover for insects and birds, who gorge themselves on berries in the winter and spread the seeds. The ‘Holly Blue’ butterfly can be seen hovering over the trees in Spring, laying their eggs on the leaves in April.

The Holly tree features in folklore and ancient wisdom, pagan rituals and Roman celebrations. It has been used to encourage fertility and ward off evil and witchcraft, ancient practices eventually being adapted into Christian tradition. This we embrace especially at Christmas time in decorating our homes with wreaths and green swags. Used symbolically in art, Holly leaves represent the ‘Crown of Thorns’ and the berries, Christ’s drops of blood.

Holly can be seen growing in virtually every street in Dulwich, there being numerous cultivars in the Park and several in Christ’s Chapel gardens including Ferox ‘Hedgehog Holly’, the oldest identifiable cultivar known since the 17th Century: puckered curly leaves with double rows of spikes makes it distinctive and easy to recognise. It grows alongside the garden wall in Gallery Road There are so many Holly varieties to choose from, each displaying leaves with different colour variations: spots, edging in gold, silver or white, or variegation and cross-gender names to confuse us, vis. ‘Silver Queen’ (male) and ‘Golden King’ (female). Further afield, Kew Gardens has a Holly Walk, two-thirds of a mile long and showing the most comprehensive collection of Hollies in the world. To end on a jolly note, there was a belief in the Middle Ages that one could over-indulge in ale beneath the protective branches of a Holly tree and suffer no ill effects of drunkenness or a hangover!

Valerie Hill-Archer