Holly (ilex aquifolium), the eternal symbol of Christmas, belongs to the same family as mate (ilex paraguensis), the national drink of Argentina and Uruguay.
Holly is a species of persistent leaf that may have a shrub or arboreal size, but rarely reaches heights over 10 meters. The leaves are alternate, very stiff, hairless and very bright. The edge of the leaf is wavy with spiny teeth. The white or pink flowers are small and are born in the leaf armpits.
Holly occurs in shady woods and mountain valleys, up to 1600 meters in altitude. It prefers fresh and protected soils, usually taking refuge inside the woods and in shady areas.
Holly wood is very heavy, white or grayish, of fine and uniform texture, hard and hard to work with. It is much appreciated in joinery work. It absorbs dyes well and is often dyed black to mimic ebony (dalbergia melanoxylon), African wood used in luxury furniture.
Holly is a medicinal and very toxic plant, ancient literature reports that ingestion of 20 to 30 fruits can cause the death of an adult. Holly contains routine, illicin and theobromine and is attributed to this plant antirheumatic, antipyretic, antidiarrheal and spasmodic properties. A holly leaf cooking is used to treat rheumatism, gout, intestinal atony, fever and even the flu.
Cutting holly boughs linked to certain religious celebrations, especially Christmas, is actually a very old pagan custom. There are references to the use of holly in the Saturn festivals in honor of Saturn, celebrated in the ancient Rome (according to history, it was the sacred plant of this god). Saturnins occurred between December 17 and 23, and these days the houses were decorated with branches and crowns of the plant. The branches and crowns, when dried, were burned for purification.
There is also a Christian legend also associated with the plant. According to this legend, when the holy family was pursued by the soldiers of King Herod, who wanted to kill Jesus, the holly provided him with protection. Legend has it that Maria, seeing that the soldiers were very close, approached a holly (which was still a deciduous tree at the time) and asked her to hide them. And miraculously, the leaves grew, hiding the family. Holly thus became a symbol of Christmas for the protection of Jesus and was given the privilege of keeping its evergreen leaves even during winter.
This association to Natal had a high cost for this species in Portugal, today protected by law since 1989.
Despite being a slow growing plant, it can live for over 300 years.
The very bright waxy leaves and the red berries that dot the gray winter days with joy, attract several birds to the garden.