Note: As part of the FES
certification procedure, practitioners are asked to
undertake an extensive study of a plant exploring many
different perspectives utilizing the Twelve
Windows of Plant Perception. The following study
of Holly was submitted by Raphel Kleimann, student
in the FES 2000 Practitioner Intensive Program. This
study has been edited and summarized in some places.
I. FORM, GESTURE,
Holly is a shrub with tree-potential
though it is so humble that it will remain a shrub
where other species have already formed a forest of
trees. Unlike most other shrubs and bushes, Holly seems
to exhibit an inner impulse for "uprightness":
it forms a central stem with clearly defined side-branches
whenever it is allowed to. The shape of the 10-15 m
(30-45 ft.) high tree is often almost cylindrical.
Looking at it from far away we usually
see ample light coming through the branches. Despite
the deep dark green of the individual leaves, it has
an element of light and levity at first appearance,
due to the relatively loose arrangement of the leaves
and the shininess of the leaf surfaces reflecting the
Coming closer to it we become aware
of other features, some of which make Holly totally
unique among European trees. The bark is dark grey,
thin, and peels off by itself. The young twigs are
very short, light green, and densely covered with hair.
In the second year they become bold while changing
from an angular to a round diameter, i.e. from a surface
with grooves to a smooth skin.
Every twig has buds not only at the
sides but also one at the tip. These buds are green
and have no hair, and they are 2-3 mm long, pointed,
cylindrical, and different in appearance from the rounded
The leaves sit in alternate positions.
They are thick and leathery, a deep dark green colour
above and a light yellow-green below, with no hairs
on either side. They remain on the tree for about three
years making Holly the only evergreen non-coniferous
tree of Europe. Their shape is very special: the basic
scheme is a pointed ellipsoid, about 5-8 cm long and
about half as wide, with the stalk of the leaf being
about a fifth of the length of the leaf itself.
This simple form of the leaves can
take on a more complex shape with up to 15 pointy
A young tree has almost exclusively
pointed leaves; female trees will have more of them
than male ones. Also, the pointed leaves may be found
in the shadow regions and in the lower section of
the tree. Higher upward in the tree, particularly
near where the flowers are, there are more and more
of the simple leaves.
| The flowers
of the Holly open up in May or June, growing in
bunches out of buds left near the attachment of
the last year's leaves. They are about 8 mm in
diameter, with four white petals which may have
a slight tint of pink. The sepals are inconspicuous.
The number of anthers is four, and the "female" carpel
is fourfold, too. The tree has the rare capacity
to produce both "unisex" or "bisex" flowers,
simply by letting either the anthers or the carpel
degenerate. Thus we usually find trees with only "male" or
only "female" flowers. However, if need
be, as when there are not enough bees around to
pollinate over a long distance, Holly can return
to having fully equipped flowers.
The Holly is able to
reproduce vegetatively via shoots from the root system.
The fruit looks like a shiny red ball of almost 1 cm
in diameter. It contains four kernels which are elongated
and have grooves.
Holly has characteristics common to
all trees, among them: the appearance of uniting cosmic
and earthly forces by growing higher up than herbs,
and by planting their roots much deeper into the ground.
The growing forces in Holly, including uprightness,
longevity (up to 300 years), and hardening of cells
into wood, create distinct, individuated trees. As
human beings we feel a companionship with these trees,
and look up to them for their height, strength and
wisdom. In general, trees have a more individual biography
as we can note in the growth rings of the trunk. On
the other hand, annual flowers more readily reflect
the qualities of the entire species, with only a slight
hint of individual biography.
Among the European trees Holly has a particular evenness, which can be
observed in the symmetrical shape of the tree as a whole, the regular
pattern of branches (from bottom to top) off the one vertical smooth-skinned
stem; in the basic pattern of the leaves (notwithstanding the secondary
shaping of edges); and in the slow and measured growth throughout the
year which leads to a very fine wood with dense regular fibres (highly
appreciated for woodcarving).
Another outstanding gesture of Holly may be identified as adaptability.
The form of the leaves varies from young to old, male to female and even
from one part of the same tree to another. Also, as mentioned previously,
the flowers adapt by forming either "male", "female" or "androgynous" blossoms.
Indeed the whole way of reproduction can change into vegetative root-sprouting
as an adaptation to a shadowy environment.
We can look at all this as an expression
of humility and willingness towards gentle sacrifice.
This is underlined also by Holly's behaviour in companionship:
it is a tree, but it doesn't hesitate to become a lowly
shrub at the feet of Oaks or - as the only species
remaining - undergrowth in a Beech forest.
Holly has many characteristics of
a mediator: it brings cosmic flowers (white
or pinkish-white, extraordinarily perfumed) amidst
very thick, earthly-leathery leaves; it combines a
deep dark green with a shiny luster; it has leaves
in the winter and keeps up a stream of life when all
other deciduous trees have drawn back leaving only
the archaic conifers standing out in the barren landscape.
The flower has the "earthly" signature
of four, a cross with double symmetry, and is "elevated" by
its lightness, its colour and its "heavenly" scent.
The fruit stands out with its colour which is unusual
among the trees with their usually brownish fruits.
It does not "fall into matter" like the heavy
Chestnuts and the fruit of the Oak, neither does it "fly
away" like the fruits of Elm, Birch, or Alder
for example. The berries are of medium size, a perfect
globe like the Earth and the colour similar to human
IV. BOTANICAL PLANT FAMILY
The European Holly, Ilex aquifolium,
belongs to the the Aquifoliaceae family, which is in
fact named for the Holly. The family consists mostly
of about 400 different species of the genus Ilex, almost
all of which produce showy prominent fruits with kernels
in them. The best known species from South America
is Ilex paraguarensis, which gives the leaves
for Yerba Mate tea.
All species of the Ilex genus have green leaves year-round. This is not
unusual in the tropics and subtropics, but is rare in temperate latitudes.
In fact only very few species live in temperate East Asia and the North
American East Coast, and only one species lives in Europe: this is Holly.
Holly likes a rich and heavy soil
and it cannot survive cold winters. This is why it
is not present in Eastern Europe, and it may also be
part of the reason why it thrives (but only as shrubby
undergrowth) in deciduous forests with their temperate
microclimates. In any event, we typically find Holly
in company with Beech, Oak or in the Mediterranean
hills forming forests together with Yew and deciduous
Oaks. Holly can adapt to very shadowy environments
(like the forests mentioned above) yet it does like
the sun, though preferring a climate that is not too
dry during the summer.
We find Holly more and more at home the closer we get to the Atlantic
Ocean. In fact it is in England and Ireland where we see Holly as beautiful,
VI. GROWTH PATTERN
Holly's growth pattern is slow and
steady throughout the year. The leaves (living for
approximately three years) modulate from more pointed,
youthful forms, to more simple, old forms, found especially
in the crown region.
VII. DAILY AND SEASONAL
The leaves have the daily breathing rhythm of all trees, giving up oxygen
during the day and taking in some oxygen at night. They "work" in
the daylight building up substances (sugars) that are released at night
Holly blossoms at the turn of "late spring" into "presummer",
i.e. May through June. The fruits are ripe in October. The most striking
characteristic in the seasonal cycle of Holly is, of course, that it
keeps its leaves during the winter.
VIII. THE FOUR ELEMENTS
Just by being a woody plant, Holly shows key characteristics of a plant
that grows deeply into the Earth element. It is well-rooted with dense
wood of a white or yellowish-greenish colour with a shimmer of blue.
Its clear geometric growth patterns also speak of the Earth Element
with respect to the Life Ether.
Water and Air:
I characterize Holly as a plant of the temperate Atlantic climate. This
means that it likes humidity in the air and the mildness of the weather
that goes with it. Gentle rains and the alternation of sun and clouds
(as exemplified in Ireland), is where Holly is most at home. "Air" lightens
up the humidity, vice versa "Water" holds the dispersing tendency
of the air element in check. Air brings lightness while water brings
renewal of life. The balanced interplay of "Water" and "Air" is
not only something that Holly thrives with, but it is also a characteristic
of the tree itself.
The red fruits suggest a strong fire process, and in fact the fruits
are poisonous. Fire also suggests a strong transformative process, and
Holly is a plant very capable of adaptation and sacrifice. However, Holly
does not have an intense devouring flame. Rather it appears to work as
a gentle warmth. All in all, Holly incorporates a very harmonious interplay
of all four elements.
Holly's predominant biochemical process
is that of every tree:
1) An upward flow of mineral salts from the root environment, dissolved
in water and sucked up through levitation via the transporting vessels
of the sapwood.
2) A downward flow of sugars produced in the leaves through photosynthesis
and going down through the cambium layer just below the bark.
3) A process of lignification i.e. of cells dying, hardening and thereby
with their empty bodies becoming the "blood vessels" for the
vital flow of mineral water.
4) A process of hardening these cells with resin substances so that they
gradually form a core of hardwood.
The tree acquires its solidity and
uprightness through a biochemical process that continually
buries parts of itself within its own core. The trees
tell us: "We have death in our center and we are
living around it".
X. MEDICINAL USES
The leaves are used for colds with
fever. They are soaked over night, then briefly boiled,
with a threefold effect: the fever goes down, the cough
is soothed and mucus is released.
I know nothing specific about the nature of the poison in the fruit except
that eating a number of the red berries will cause stomachache, vomiting
TO OTHER KINGDOMS
As far as growing conditions, Holly likes a clay soil, mildly acidic,
with rocks in it. It grows on hills and even on mountains (up to 1800
m altitude). It is most deeply related to the mineral forces of the
Atlantic Ocean which have permeated the soil over eons of time.
Holly is a selfless companion to fellow trees: as equal partners it exists
with Oaks and Yew, elsewhere, as humble undergrowth to Oak and Beech.
Holly is pollinated by bees. Through its beautiful smell it has a special
connection to those insects. It very often hosts a particular fly (Phytomyza
acquifolii); the larval of the nicknamed "mining fly" literally
mine their eating tunnels through the leaves of Holly and they stay
in their little caves even during the winter, partly as cocoon.
I feel Holly is particularly close (on a soul level) to the human kingdom.
It seems to "speak" to the heart.
LORE MYTHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATIONS
In the Druidic culture
Holly was considered as a holy tree. Its name (Old
English "holegn") is directly related to "holy".
Oak was considered the king of the rising year (from
Winter solstice to summer solstice), and Holly the
king of the descending year (summer and fall until
Holly King reigns over the dark half of
the year when the days grow shorter. He
ascends the throne after the ritual sacrifice
of the Oak King on the midsummer fires.
In a neverending cycle of life, death,
and rebirth, the Holly King is himself
sacrificed at the Winter Solstice, to make
way once more for the king of the light
half of the year. The Oak and Holly Kings
are dual aspects of the guardian god of
nature, who in some traditions is also
known as the corn god. Their combined role
is to protect, court, and make love with
the earth goddess, thus ensuring the fruitfulness
of the land. Together they are responsible
for carrying the green life force of nature
through the year.
The Wisdom of Trees: "Mysteries, Magic, and Medicine"
by Jane Gifford
Widespread lore on the British Isles
sees Holly as the twin brother of Ivy. The embodiment
of the female aspects of nature was Ivy, and Holly
that of the male. That piece of Celtic lore lives on
today in so far as farmers, especially in Wales, do
not touch Holly when they lay their traditional hedges,
out of a respect for Holly.
Holly has also become central in
Christian plant lore. The legend says that the palm
leaves of the crowds in Jerusalem turned into spring
Holly twigs when the "Hosanna" to the Christ
changed into "Crucify him!" In Europe, Holly
came to be known as "Christ Thorn" (Christdorn
in German). Holly is a standard decoration of the Church
on Palm Sunday and on Christmas.
- the Heart Healer an in-depth article
by Patricia Kaminski on archetypal themes
underlying the healing qualities of Holly.
XIII. PERSONAL OBSERVATIONS
Whenever I see the Holly tree, I feel
an inner smile, like a ray of light touching my heart.
Sometimes I go and look for Holly trees or I pay a
visit to the ones that I know best. They give me relief
from pain and I feel my own inner clarity and "uprightness".
The beautiful thing about Holly's presence is that
it touches both heart and mind, and brings them into
a harmonious dialogue. I become aware of my own spinal
column and feel an inner acceptance of pain and sacrifice.
The thorns of Holly do not speak to me of aggression,
but rather they speak of sacrifice, and of the crown
the Hanged Man of the Tarot, Holly represents
personal sacrifice in order to gain something
of greater value.”
The Wisdom of Trees: “Mysteries, Magic, and Medicine”
by Jane Gifford
The crucial paradox of the Christian
faith – intellectually incomprehensible – becomes
living evidence in the presence of Holly. The leaves
are so dark – and yet the tree radiates light!
There is so much sharpness and pointedness in Holly – and
yet it transmits a mild and gentle acceptance. On another
level, the thorns symbolize the protection of the core
self of pure love from the intrusion of negative thoughts
like envy and jealousy.
I feel something highly cosmic in
Holly, which has taken on and adapted to the earthly
elements. This cosmic-earthly body of Holly gives me
courage to stand upright, and courage to bring love
Ralph Raphael Grosse-Kleimann may
be contacted at:
CH - 4143 Dornach
Tel & Fax +41 (0) 61 701 23 74
e-mail (checked infrequently): firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by Julian Barnard, Richard
Katz and Jann Garitty