Botanical Name of Holly: Ilex aquifolium.

Other Common Names: Common holly, English holly, acebo (Spanish), kristþyrnir (Icelandic), Stechpalme (German), houx (French), järnek (Swedish), kristtorn (Danish), orjanlaakeri (Finnish).

Habitat: Holly is native to western and southern parts of Europe, West Asia, and North Africa.

It grows best in calcareous soil in moist and shady areas. The plant is often found growing wild as an undergrowth in oak or beech forest.

Description: Holly is an evergreen tree or a shrub belonging to the holly family (Aquifoliaceae). It usually does not grow more than 6 meters in height, but old trees have been known to reach up to 10 meters.

Holly has a pyramidal crown, which branches from the base. The bark of the young branches is green and shiny but light gray on older branches and stems. The wood is hard and dense and is often used for wood cutting.

The leathery, dark green and shiny leaves can be oval (especially on older trees) but the young leaves have usually three to five sharp spines. Younger leaves are softer and have strong curved leaf edges so the spines point in all directions.

The flowers are white and four lobed. Holly is dioecious so it produces both male and female flowers, which normally form on separate plants.

From the female flower develops beautiful red stony fruit called a drupe that contains 4 to 5 hard seeds. The fruits, which often sit on the tree until the following spring, are eaten and spread by birds or rodents. The fruits taste bitter and are poisonous.

Plant Parts Used: It is the fresh or dried leaves that are used in herbal medicine in the form of tea or alcohol based extracts.

The leaves can be harvested all year round and used fresh, or they are collected late in the spring and dried for later use. The fruits are poisonous and should not be used medicinally.

holly medicinal herb

Holly – Fruits and Leaves

Traditional Uses, Health Benefits and Medicinal Applications of Holly

Active Ingredients and Substances: Holly contains triterpenes (alpha and beta amyrin, ursolic acid), flavonoids (mainly kaempferol, rutin and quercetin glycosides), nitrile glycosides (menisdaurin), a bitter alkaloid called ilicin, phytosterols (betasitosterol, stigmastrol), caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid and traces of theobromine (in the leaves).

The bark contains tannins, pectin and a yellow dye (ilixanthin).

Folk Traditions and Legends Associated with Holly

Holly Ilex aquifolium

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) – Illustration ©The Herbal Resource

Legend has it that the crown of thorns place on the head of Jesus before his crucifixion was made from twigs cut from holly and the red fruits symbolized his blood.

Another legend declares that holly first emerged from the footsteps of Jesus Christ, and its thorny leaves and red fruits are symbolical of his sufferings. In Norway, Sweden and Denmark the herb’s common name is
“kristtorn” meaning “Christ’s thorn”.

Holly has had a place in rituals and religious ceremonies for thousands of years. Because the leaves stay green in winter the Celts and Anglo-Saxons beveled it was surrounded by a mysterious force.

In many countries it is tradition to make Christmas ornaments with holly and wreaths placed above entrances were said to bring happiness and goodwill.

Holly Uses as a Medicinal Herb

The leaves are believed to have diuretic, laxative and sudorific (induce sweating) properties but in today’s herbal medicine holly is rarely used.

The herb has sometimes been used internally in the form of a hot tea to reduce fever, treat bronchitis, common cold and some digestive disorders. It is also thought to be helpful as a blood purifying tonic for chronic rheumatic ailments and disorders. In addition, an extract made from the fresh leaves has been used to treat jaundice.

Some believe that the leaves can be used as a tea substitute in the same way as the closely related South American species yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis),

The leaves of holly do contain the stimulant substances caffeine and theobromine but not to the same extent as yerba mate.

The fruits have different properties to the leaves. They are rather poisonous and can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea (emetic and purgative), but despite this they have been used traditionally as an herbal remedy for dropsy or edema (fluid retention). Furthermore, the powdered fruits have astringent (contracting) effect and have been used to halt bleeding.

Due to the fruit’s toxic effects they should not be used internally.

Dosage and Administration

As of yet there are no proper standards available when it comes to the dosages and doses of holly as a medicinal herb.

A common dosage based on traditional use is often two or three teaspoons of the dried leaves added to a cup of hot water. This herbal tea is usually consumed few times per day.

A liquid alcohol based extract made from the leaves can also be used. When the herb is used in this form, several drops can be ingested daily.

Possible Side Effects and Interactions of Holly

No contraindications or side effects are known in conjunction with the proper use of the leaves of holly in therapeutic doses.

Information on the safety of the herb during pregnancy is not available so caution is advised.

The fruits are poisonous and consumption of more than five berries can cause digestive disorders, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and sleepiness.

Consuming 20 to 30 berries or more, can cause life-threatening inflammation to occur in the digestive system but there have been no confirmed reports of poisoning of holly in recent times.

Supporting References

Gruenwald, Joerg et al.: PDR for Herbal Medicines. Fourth Edition. Montvale, New Jersey, Thomson Healthcare Inc. 2007.
Karalliedde, Lakshman & Indika Gawarammane: Traditional Herbal Medicines, a guide to their safer use. London, Hammersmith Press Ltd. 2008.
Potterton, David (ed.): Culpeper’s Colour Herbal. Berkshire, Foulsham 2007.
Skenderi, Gazmend: Herbal Vade Mecum. 800 Herbs, Spices, Essential Oils, Lipids Etc. Constituents, Properties, Uses, and Caution. Rutherford, New Jersey, Herbacy Press 2003.
Stuart, Malcolm: The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism. London, Orbis Publishing 1979.
Turner, Nancy J. and Adam F. Szczawinski: Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America. Portland, Timber Press 1997.
Williamson, Elisabeth M.: Potter’s Herbal Cyclopedia. Essex, Saffron Walden 2003.