Practical ecological knowledge for the temperate reader.

English Holly - Ilex aquifolium

Toxic, Tea/Coffee, Wood, Bach, jaundice, emetic, febrifuge, diuretics


"Ilex aquifolium is an evergreen Shrub growing to 9 m (29ft) by 5 m (16ft) at a slow rate.
It is hardy to zone (UK) 6 and is not frost tender. It is in leaf 12-Jan It is in flower from May to June, and the seeds ripen from Nov to March. The flowers are dioecious (individual flowers are either male or female, but only one sex is to be found on any one plant so both male and female plants must be grown if seed is required) and are pollinated by Bees.The plant is not self-fertile.
It is noted for attracting wildlife.
Suitable for: light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and can grow in heavy clay and nutritionally poor soils. Suitable pH: acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils and can grow in very acid soils.
It can grow in full shade (deep woodland) semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade. It prefers dry or moist soil and can tolerate drought. The plant can tolerate maritime exposure.
It can tolerate atmospheric pollution." [PFAF]

Additional Notes: This species is listed by the Greater Vancouver Invasive Plant Council as one of the twelve most problematic species in the Vancouver region.[E-flora]


"English holly is an introduced shrub or small tree species in North America that is native to western and southern Europe, northwest Africa and southwest Asia. It is widely used in garden plantings along the Pacific Coast, and is also cultivated in holly farms along the coast for the Christmas trade. It has naturalized in several US states (CA, HI, OR, WA) and two Canadian provinces (BC, ON) (USDA 2010). It is also reported from New England (Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States 2010). In BC, it is reported from the southwestern corner of the province, in the Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island." [E-flora]

"English holly is our familiar Christmas holly, and is a readily recognized, shade-tolerant, small tree/shrub species (2-5 m in height), with distinctive, often prickly (stiff, spine-like teeth), usually dark green shiny, leathery, leaves (sometimes variegated) that may be entire to lobed. It has small white, usually dioecious, flowers in the spring, and produces bright red persistent berries. Reproduction is by both seed and suckering. This species is considered a significant urban pest, and is readily dispersed by birds into forested urban areas. It can become abundant and a significant part of the understorey/tall shrub layer--shading out native species. Seedlings are frequently encountered, both in garden settings and in natural areas." [E-flora]

"Fresh cuttings from holly trees are widely sold in BC during the Christmas period." [E-flora]


"“Hazards and/or side effects not known for proper therapeutic dosages” (PH2). Ingesting more than five berries may induce diarrhea, gastroenterosis, nausea, and vomiting. Fatal GI inflammation is said to have taken place following the ingestion of very large quantities (20 to 30 berries). Poisonings have not been reported in recent times (MAD; PH2). Human fatality reported (ATM; MAD)." [HMH Duke]

Edible Uses

Other Uses

Medicinal Uses

"The medicinal parts are the dried foliage leaves, the fresh leaves, the young leafy branches with the ripe berries and the flowers of the branch tips with the leaves." Unproven uses include " a diuretic. Also used for coughs, digestive disorders and jaundice. In folk medicine, Holly is used for fever, chronic bronchitis, constipation, rheumatism and gout." [PDR]


"Builders liked to use holly wood to make external door sills, for no witch could cross it (Porter. 1969). Collars of holly (and bittersweet) saved horses from witchcraft (Aubrey: “Take Bittersweet, and Holly, and twist them together, and hang it about the Horses neck like a garland: it will certainly cure him [of being Hag-ridden]. Probat”). Needfire in the Highlands was lighted by “spinning an oaken augur in a holly beam” (C M Robertson)." [DPL Watts]

" provided divine protection (Groome). Sometimes pieces of holly were put up with rowan (they are both red-berried) over the stable to prevent the entrance of the nightmare (McPherson), and in the Highlands, decorating the house with holly on New Year’s Eve, or putting a sprig over the dairy door, was a recognised means of keeping the fairies out (McGregor). In the West of England it was said that a maiden should adorn her bed with a sprig of berried holly on Christmas Eve, otherwise she might receive an unwelcome visit “from some mischievous goblin” (Crippen). In Lancashire, a sprig of holly used to be hung in a new building, to bring luck.... Holly is, under certain circumstances, an unlucky plant, as in the Welsh superstition that bringing it into the house during summer was supremely unlucky, holly flowers in particular (Baker. 1980).... Sterile holly is unlucky at any time, and dangerous to man and beast. In a year when there are no berries, it is wise to put a sprig, perhaps with the berries reddened with raddle (Drury. 1987), or box, into the holly wreath, to break the bad luck (Tongue)."[DPL Watts]

"It is unlucky too to burn holly branches while they are green (Wiltshire, D Lewis).... ...berried holly is the traditional male symbol, while the smooth variegated kind, and the ivy, were the female luck symbols." [DPL Watts]

"There are still a few more superstitions connected with holly. It is a common belief that a good crop of holly berries is a sign of a hard winter to come, put succinctly in the Somerset saying: Many berries, much snow (Tongue). But this, of course, applies equally well to hawthorn." [DPL Watts]

"A more conventional chilblain cure, from Wiltshire this time, is to make an ointment of holly berries mixed with goose fat or lard. For toes and fingers, the best thing is to apply the ointment liberally, wrap the part tightly in an old stocking, and then toast it in front of the fire till the heat becomes unbearable (Whitlock. 1988)."[DPL Watts]

The berries and leaves do have medicinal effects, of course – the berries are violently emetic, and were used once for colic (Dallimore). When dried and powdered, herbalists still sometimes use them for dropsy (A W Hatfield), which may explain why in times gone by they were used for the stone. Lupton claimed to treat it by “seeth(ing) an handful of holly berries in a pint of good ale, till half the ale be consumed; then strain it, putting then a little butter to it, and let the party drink thereof …”. [DPL Watts]

"Evelyn too reported the value against the stone, this time of the leaves, which certainly do relieve fevers and catarrh, and were once stated to be “equal to Peruvian bark” (Dallimore)." [DPL Watts]

Gender: Masculine
Planet: Mars
Element: Fire
Powers: Protection, Anti-Lightning, Luck, Dream Magic [EMH Cunningham]

"...use in folk medicine is very largely confined to central and southern England, and to one affliction mainly: chilblains. By beating those with a sprig of holly till they bled, it was believed that the circulation was improved....108 For the same reason that was the way to relieve arthritis or rheumatism, people maintained in Somerset.109 But if the rationale of applying a counter-irritant was considered to dictate too painful a procedure, chilblains could equally well be treated with an ointment made from mixing lard with the powdered berries (Wiltshire,110 Essex111), or rheumatism relieved with an infusion of the leaves (in Devon).[112] A whooping-cough cure in Hampshire involved drinking new milk out of a cup made from the wood of the variegated variety of the tree.[113] ...holly leaves were applied to burns in Meath,114 and a stiff neck cured in Waterford[115] by beating it with a sprig from the tree."[MPFT]

How To Make Holly Tea

The leaves of this tree are toxic and only the proper preparation will remove the toxins. This done wrong will make you vomit. Vomiting in a survival situation is a great way to die. Done right and you will have a healthy, non-bitter tea with vitamins C, A, and packed full of antioxidants.
History - The type of Holly here is called the American Holly. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), tea made from this tree was very popular.

WARNING: The most important part of this process is air drying the leaves first. If you do not air dry them you will be sick.

Ben English,, March, 2011


  • Diaphoretic (f; EFS; HHB) [HMH Duke]
  • Digitalic (f; MAD) [HMH Duke]
  • Diuretic (f; HHB; PH2) [HMH Duke][DukePhyt]
  • Emetic (1; DEP); [HMH Duke][DukePhyt]
  • Emollient (f; DEP); [HMH Duke][DukePhyt]
  • Laxative (f; MAD); [HMH Duke]
  • Litholytic (f; MAD); [HMH Duke]
  • Toxic (1; PH2). [HMH Duke]


  • Cancer(Intestine) (Hartwell, J.L.) [DukePhyt]
  • Cancer(Liver) (Hartwell, J.L.) [DukePhyt]
  • Cancer(Stomach) (Hartwell, J.L.) [DukePhyt]
  • Dropsy [DukePhyt]
  • Fever [DukePhyt]
  • Gout [DukePhyt]



"Succeeds in most soils, including peat, chalk, gravels, sand and shales[186], so long as they are not water-logged, though wild plants are occasionally found in situations with standing winter water[186]. Grows well in heavy clay soils[186]. Established plants are fairly drought tolerant[186]. Dislikes dry soils according to one report[31] whilst another says that it succeeds in dry shade[188]. Tolerates a pH range from 3.5 to 7.2[186]. Succeeds in full sun or fairly dense shade[17, 28, 31], self-sown seedlings from woods and shady places making the most shade tolerant plants[28]. Tolerant of maritime exposure[75] though in such a situation it may lose some or all its leaves in the winter[186]. Plants require a minimum July temperature of 12°c for good fruit production[186]. They tolerate short periods in winter down to -15°c[184]. Severe frosts can kill whole branches, especially if they are open to the sky[186]. The young growth in spring can be damaged by late frosts. A very ornamental plant, there are many named varieties[182]. Flowers and fruits are formed on wood of the previous year's growth[229]. A good bee plant[108], the minute flowers are sweetly scented[245]. The fruit is a valuable winter food source for birds. Resents root disturbance, especially as the plants get older[11]. It is best to place the plants into their permanent positions as soon as possible, perhaps giving some winter protection for their first year or two[K]. Only move the plants in May or, preferably, in September[1]. Plants are quite slow growing, even when in good soils and situations[11, 75]. Trees are usually dioecious but hermaphrodite forms are available. Male and female plants must usually be grown if seed is required. Plants are capable of regenerating from the main stem both above and below ground level and, although the top may be killed in a fire, the plants will usually regrow from the base[186]. Rabbits are particularly fond of this species and will quickly remove the bark. This species is notably resistant to honey fungus[200]." [PFAF]

Hedge/Groundcover: "An excellent hedge plant, tolerating hard clipping and maritime exposure and forming a dense stock-proof shelter[4, 11, 29, 75, 186]. Plants are fairly slow growing however[11]. The cultivar 'Pendula' makes a very good carpeting ground cover plant when grown as a cutting on its own roots[208]. It can be planted up to 1.2 metres apart each way, but is fairly slow to cover the ground[208]." [PFAF]

"Seed - best sown as soon as it is ripe in the autumn in a cold frame. It can take 18 months to germinate. Stored seed generally requires two winters and a summer before it will germinate and should be sown as soon as possible in a cold frame. Scarification, followed by a warm stratification and then a cold stratification may speed up the germination time[78, 80]. The seedlings are rather slow-growing. Pot them up into individual pots when they are large enough to handle and grow them on in light shade in a cold frame for their first year. It is possible to plant them out into a nursery bed in late spring of the following year, but they should not be left here for more than two years since they do not like being transplanted. Alternatively, grow them on in their pots for a second season and then plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer. Give them a good mulch and some protection for their first winter outdoors. Cuttings of almost ripe wood with a heel, August in a shaded position in a cold frame. Leave for 12 months before potting up. Layering in October. Takes 2 years." [PFAF]

Ilex - Holly

"Leaf: petioled; adaxially generally shiny.
Flower: sepals persistent in fruit; petals oblong or obovate.
Fruit: pulpy.
300–400 species: especially tropics. (Latin: name for Medit holly-oak, Quercus ilex L.) [Zika 2010 Madroño 57:1–10] Ilex cornuta Lindl. & Paxton occasionally persisting from cultivation." [Jepson]

Local Species;

  1. Ilex aquifolium - English holly [TSFTK][E-flora]

Use of Non-local Species

"Leaves of some holly species are (or were) used by some cultures to make daily tea. These species are Yerba mate (I. paraguariensis), Ilex guayusa, Kuding (Ilex kaushue), Yaupon (I. vomitoria) and others. Leaves of other species, such as gallberry (I. glabra) are bitter and emetic.[27] In general little is known about inter-species variation in constituents or toxicity of hollies." [Wiki]

Yerba Mate - Ilex paraguariensis

"Maté is the national beverage of Argentina and Paraguay but has never spread beyond the region. The plant is a relative of European holly (Ilex aquifolium), whose leaves have occasionally been used to make a narcotic drink; more importantly, it is related to yaupon or Carolina tea (Ilex vomitoria) and other species that have been used to make stimulating and narcotic drinks by North Americans both before and after European settlement." [Katz EF]

Yaupon - Ilex vomitoria

"One member of the genus, Ilex vomitoria, as its botanical name suggests, has potent emetic properties. It is differentiated easily from American and English hollies since it has a different leaf structure and the berries are usually yellow. Exposures to this species are uncommon."[PTH]

"The Yaupon Holly, which has the highest caffeine content of any plant in North America, is called Ilex vomitoria." [Eattheweeds]

"Traditionally Yaupon was processed differently. The leaves were kiln dried then powdered in mortars. Some of the powder was put in a bowl and cold water poured over it and allowed to sit a few minutes. Then hot water was added. Some writers say the ceremonial brew was made from green Yaupon that were used fresh, read not allowed to dry. Roasting, however, does increase the availability of the caffeine." [Eattheweeds]

"Dr. William A. Morrill. a plant PhD, wrote in 1940 there are two ways to make holly tea. One is to boil the cured leaves like coffee, not seep them like tea. (Cured means oven dried or steamed.) But, of the Yaupon, he said the best holly tea was to use an equal mix of chopped brown dry roasted and steamed green leaves (remember you must dry them first, then roast or steam.) I got his information from a crumbling, out-of-print book. Only you and I know it. While Yaupon Holly tea does have a lot of caffeine it is practically free of tannin, which reduces bitterness considerably. It is also full of antioxidants which are good for you." [Eattheweeds]

"Two other hollies, however, make good tea without caffeine: the American Holly, Ilex opaca and Ilex verticillata." [Eattheweeds]

Shared Uses


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