Ilex aquifolium

Herbs gallery - Holly

Common names

  • Common Holly
  • English Holly
  • European Holly
  • Holly
  • Mountain Holly

Holly is an evergreen tree that normally grows up to a height of 70 feet in the wild, but the cultivated variety has an average height of anything between 6 and 15 feet. This tree produces shiny, rubbery, alternate leaves that are spiky at the edges. Holly produces diminutive white color flowers during the period between June and July. It may be noted here that only female holly trees produce fruits or berries.

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According to the saying of an old carol to 'deck the halls with boughs of holly' to follow a tradition which the ancient Christians most probably took on from the Roman Saturnalia. Following this pagan or pantheist celebration, which commenced on December 17, prompted the festivals of the Christian Yuletide. As per an ancient Roman traditional faith, the white flowers of holly had the aptitude to transform water into ice! People also believed that planting holly trees near one's house protected them from lightening as well as the evils of witchcraft - in fact, many people still follow this in the rural areas of England. Going by a medieval fable, the holly tree first emerged at the footsteps of Jesus Christ, with prickly leaves to be a sign of the crown of thorns and the red berries of the plant to remind people of the blood drained on the holy cross.

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In earlier times, herbalists as well as physicians had discovered several therapeutic uses of the holly. An infusion or tea was prepared by brewing the leaves of the tree and it was thought that taking this infusion induced sweating and was, therefore, given to patients suffering from malaria as well as other intermittent or persistent fevers. On the other hand, the juice extracted from the red berries of holly was a common medication for treating jaundice, although this juice is extremely toxic. Native Indians inhabiting the southern regions of the United States also brewed a potent tea from the leaves of an indigenous holly tree in America. It is believed that this particular tea called the 'black drink' may possibly have had an important function in ceremonial purification. It may be noted that the Yaupon leaves enclose caffeine and occasionally the pioneers employed this tea in the form of an alternate for tea that was imported.

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Parts used

Leaves, berries, bark.


Despite possessing a number of therapeutic properties, these days holly is seldom used as a remedy. The leaves of this tree possess laxative, fever reducing as well as diuretic properties and have been used to cure jaundice, fevers as well as rheumatism. In addition, the berries of holly cleanse the bowels and result in vomiting provided it is taken in excessive amounts.

Lacnunga (an ancient Anglo-Saxon collection of religious and remedial texts) suggested that the bark of the holly tree may be boiled in goat's milk and the resultant solution may be used to cure chest constriction. Similarly important, it was also believed that the holly tree protected the people from witchcraft and all evil spells. According to a number of physicians of the 19th century, the bark of the holly tree was not only equivalent to cinchona, but also surpassed the latter's effectiveness in curing fevers.

In Chinese folk medicine, for several centuries now, people have been brewing the leaves of holly trees to prepare a tea. Findings of a number of studies undertaken with holly in recent times have suggested that the leaf of this tree facilitates in enhancing the blood circulation as well as expanding the blood vessels, which, in turn, augments the flow of blood to the heart.

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There was a time when the leaves of holly trees were employed in the form of a diaphoretic (any substance that induces perspiration) as well as in the form of an infusion and was given to people suffering from pleurisy, catarrh and smallpox. In addition, as the leaves possess tonic and febrifugal properties, they have also been employed for treating sporadic fevers. In fact, powdered leaves or infusions and decoctions prepared with holly leaves have been used with considerable success in treating intermittent fevers in cases where cinchona has failed to produce the desired results. These therapeutic actions of holly leaves have been attributed to the presence of a bitter principle, which is an alkaloid known as Ilicin.

Compared to the leaves, the holly berries or the fruits produced by the tree possess entirely dissimilar properties. The berries are known to be purgative and violently emetic and in rare occasions they result in too much vomiting immediately after they are swallowed. However, blackbirds and thrushes consume these berries freely without causing them any harm. The holly berries have also been used to treat dropsy (formerly known as edema) and the powdered form of these berries, which possess astringent properties, has been employed to control hemorrhages.

The bark of the young shoots of holly is fermented to prepare birdlime. The bark is stripped off the tree sometime during the middle of summer and soaked in unpolluted water and subsequently boiled until it detaches into different strata. At the time the internal green part is accumulated in small masses in the course of the fermentation ensuing. When approximately a fortnight has passed, it is converted into a muggy, mucilaginous material, and is pulverized into a paste, rinsed and once again laid by for fermentation. Following this, the substance is blended with some type of oily substance - in this case goose fat is preferable, and is all set for use. It may be noted that in earlier times, in the northern regions of England, the holly tree was found in such abundance in the Lake District that people made large quantities of birdlime from it and even exported it to the East Indies for eliminating insects.

It may be mentioned here that the holly tree leaves have also been used in the Black Forest in the form of an alternate for tea. In fact, the Paraguay tea, which is extensively used in Brazil, is prepared by brewing the dried up leaves and tender shoots of a different species of holly (botanical name Ilex Paraguayensis) that grows in abundance in South America. This is actually an example of the fact that comparable or analogues attributes are present is over a solitary species belonging to the same genus.

The common holly tree has been extensively planted in gardens, parks and as hedges, especially for the plant's berries which are present in the winter months. The dense foliage of holly, including the prickly protective leaves, as well as its trimmed shape that is done without much difficulty, is perfectly suitable as a hedge plant. In several regions of Britain, there was a time when it was believed that cutting down holly trees brought bad luck, since the evergreen leaves of this plant was regarded to be a symbol of everlasting life as well as mystical powers. Even to this day some people hold such convictions and several holly trees are found in the middle of hedges where they serve as helpful signpost for the local inhabitants.

It may be noted that the holly tree is associated with Christmas in Britain as well as several other western cultures. The holly trees, especially their branches, make a perfect celebratory beautifications owing to the plant's vivid red berries set against the deep green and shiny leaves. The custom of holly decorations actually has its origin even before the advent of Christianity and most possibly it commenced with the ancient pagans of Europe. These people brought the branches of holly inside their homes during the winter with a view to avoid the evil spirits and witchcraft. On the other hand, documents available show that even the Romans had the tradition of sending holly boughs along with gifts during Saturnalia - a festival celebrated in the month of December.

Habitat and cultivation

Holly can be found growing all over most regions of Europe. In addition, it also grows in many areas of west and central Asia as well as North Africa. In addition, holly is also cultivated in the form of a garden plant. The leaves of this tree are collected in spring, while the berries are harvested during the winter.

The holly tree has the aptitude to grow just about in any type of soil if it is not very damp. However, the holly trees grow to their maximum size and height when the soil is rich, sandy or gravelly loam having a good drainage system. In addition, there needs to be a reasonable amount of dampness at the roots because the growth of the trees is generally stunted in all arid localities. However, holly trees will manage to survive in nearly all types of soil, barring those that are drenched with stagnant water. The ideal or most encouraging situations, however, appear to be a thinly dispersed forest of oaks, in the open spaces of which, the holly trees grow immediately. This tree has the aptitude to endure extreme climatic conditions and is not harmed even by the harshest winters.

The holly trees are propagated by their seeds. However, since the holly seeds take too long to germinate, usually as long as two years, the berries of the tree are usually put in a heap of earth for a year prior to sowing. During autumn, the young holly plants are transplanted to their permanent positions when they are about a foot or 18 inches in height. In case you are growing holly for serving as a hedge, ensure that the soil around the tree is well trenched from before and if required, use moderate amounts of manure. Compared to most deciduous trees, the holly trees wear out the soil in the adjoining area to a greater extent. Hence, a minimum of two years would be required to recover the check owing to the transplantation. By nature, the holly trees always have a sluggish growth, but they grow comparatively more rapidly after the first four to five years of existence.

There are several varieties of holly cultivars and among these one is identified by means of the exceptional color of the plant's berries - they are yellow instead of being red. The other forms of this holly tree are distinguished by multicoloured foliage, or due to the presence of a more or lesser number of spines compared to the ordinary forms.

During the winter months, the more gaudy varieties of the double contrast provided by the holly leaves and berries are responsible for perking up the appearance of the garden as well as the shrubbery. These varieties of holly trees are produced by grafting four or five year-old plants of the common variety as well as by cuttings.

Early phase of spring, prior to the formation of the sap, is considered to be the ideal time to cut down the holly trees. It may be noted that rather than a straight cut, a sloping cut is always preferred as this prevents moisture from staying on the cut portion. As a further protection the wound or the cut portion ought to be swathed with a tar coating. However, the growths on the side of the trunk should be left untouched since they will facilitate in drawing up the sap.


Chemical analysis of the holly has revealed that this herb encloses ilexanthin, ilicin (which is a bitter principle), theobromine (found only in the leaves of the plant) and caffeic acid. It may be noted here that theobromine is basically an alkaloid of the caffeine type that is especially used to treat asthma.

Collection and harvesting

The leaves of holly are used fresh as well as dried, but more commonly when they are dried up. This is the reason why the leaves of this plant are collected during May and June. The leaves should be removed from the tree on an arid day when humidity is low. The best time for harvesting the leaves is around the noon where there is not even a trace of dew left on the leaves. It is important to discard all blemishes or insect-eaten leaves immediately to save the good ones from being spoilt.


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