The ultimate conquest of all will be through love and gentleness, and when we have sufficiently developed these two qualities nothing will be able to assail us, since we shall ever have compassion and not offer resistance.


For those who are sometimes attacked by thoughts of such kind as jealousy, envy, revenge, suspicion.
For the different forms of vexation.
Within themselves they may suffer much, often when there is no real cause for their unhappiness.

—Dr. Edward Bach

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.




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 light.

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 flower buds.

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 edges.

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.
female Holly flower
female flower

male 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.

male female

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 blood.


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, impressive trees.


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.



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 time.

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.


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".


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 and diarrhea.


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.


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 winter solstice).

The 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.

Read Holly - the Heart Healer an in-depth article by Patricia Kaminski on archetypal themes underlying the healing qualities of Holly.



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 of thorns

“Like 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 to earth.

Ralph Raphael Grosse-Kleimann may be contacted at:
Bahnhofstrasse 16
CH - 4143 Dornach
Tel & Fax +41 (0) 61 701 23 74
e-mail (checked infrequently):

Photos by Julian Barnard, Richard Katz and Jann Garitty


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