English Holly (Ilex aquifolium): Leaves, Berries & Problems – Identification Guide

English Holly, scientifically known as Ilex aquifolium, is a species of flowering plant in the family Aquifoliaceae. It is native to western and southern Europe, northwest Africa, and southwest Asia. In its native regions, Ilex aquifolium is found in the garrigue and maquis, as well as in deciduous forest and oak forest. It has also been introduced to other parts of the world, including the Pacific Northwest in the United States and Canada, where it has become invasive.

In medieval times, it was associated with Christianity, symbolizing the crown of thorns worn by Jesus and the drops of blood shed for salvation. The red berries serve as a reminder of the blood, and the shape of the leaves, resembling flames, reveals God’s burning love for His people.

The leaves of English holly are dark green and glossy, with wavy margins and sharp spines. They are leathery and oval. The upper surface of the leaves is darker than the underside. In the young and lower limbs of mature trees, the leaves have three to five sharp spines on each side, pointing alternately upward and downward. However, in the upper branches of mature trees, the leaves lack spines.

The flowers are small and white or slightly pink, with four petals and four sepals partially fused at the base. They are pollinated by bees. The plant is dioecious, in that there are separate male and female plants. Only the female plants bear fruits. This is a slow-growing tree that can reach 30 to 50 feet tall and 15 to 25 feet wide.

The fruits of Ilex aquifolium are drupes and bright red or bright yellow. They ripen around October or November and are very bitter due to the ilicin content. However, after the first frost of the season, the fruits become softer and less bitter, serving as important food for winter birds at a time of scarce resources.

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