American Holly

Holly is a very common Christmas ornament but it is more than just a pretty evergreen.

When the pilgrims came over to America they found American hollies growing along the coast of the new world. American holly looks very similar to English holly which was a symbol of Christmas in England and Europe. It quickly became a popular plant in North America. Even George Washinton was a fan of them, planting more than a dozen at Mt. Vernon.

Hollies are much like ginkgos in the sense that they are dioecious, they have separate male and female trees. So, only the female trees produce those pretty red berries. They are also a great wildlife tree, as 18 species of birds love to eat the berries.

During the Civil war, American Holly leaves were a popular tea substitute. The Native Americans would also use all parts of the tree in medicine. Today, hollies are not used very often in natural medicine but are very popular for Christmas decor and landscaping. Because they are used so often in the home as decorations, it is important to know that the berries are poisonous and can be especially harmful to children and pets.


Common Name: American Holly
Scientific Name: Ilex opaca
Leaves- alternate, simple, evergreen, toothed margins, dark green, thick, stiff, tips are often bent
Bark- smooth, gray
Fruit- red or orange, berries/drupes, only found on female trees
Height- 40-50 feet
Harvest Time: September-October
Parts Edible: leaves, bark, berries
Found: Prefers southeastern UnitedStates, can be found in as far north as New Jersey and southern Connecticut; likes mixed woods, bottoms lands

Historic Uses

-Leaves have been used a tea substitute
-Native Americans used an infusion of the leaves as an eyewash
-The root was once used to treat colic, fevers, and toothaches
-Tea made from leaves was once used to treat measles, colds, flu, coughs, and as an expectorant
-Externally, leaf tea was used to treat boils and itching
-Leaves were sometimes boiled in beer to treat pleurisy
-Berries were made into a thick syrup to treat  diarrhea, colic, and indigestion in children
-Bark tea was used to treat malaria and epilepsy
-A dye has been made from the berries
-Wood is used for making tools
-Fermented bark can be used as an insect repellent

Vitamins, Minerals, & More


Properties: laxative, emetic, diuretic


American holly is not used medicinally very often anymore. It is used primarily as a decoration. Not all hollies can be used interchangeably.


-Holly berries are considered poisonous and can induce violent vomiting
-10-12 can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and increase urination
-Swallowing the leaves can possibly puncture or tear the inside of the mouth and digestive tract
-The berries are not safe if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
-Not safe for children either!
-Holly is not safe for dogs, cats, or horses

Practicing Sustainable Wild Harvesting

  1. Only harvest plants you know are safe and can identify
  2. Only harvest plants in safe areas that are not contaminated or polluted
  3. Do not harvest on private property without permission
  4. Harvest no more than 10% or use the method: take 1 leave 2
  5. Know how to handle and prepare the plants you are harvesting
  6. Always check the legal status of the plant you want to harvest (is it endangered?)


The Arbor Day Foundation American Holly
American Holly
Yale University American Holly
PFAF American Holly
WebMD Holly
-Foster, Steven, and James Duke A. Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 345. Print.
-Profant, Dennis. Trees, Shrubs, and Vines of Southeastern Ohio and Appalachia. By Bill Perine. 4th ed. N.p.: n.p., 2007. 157. Print.

Disclaimer: This content is for educational purposes only. I am not a doctor, veterinarian, dietician, or health expert. Licensing is not available in the United States for an herbalist to practice herbal medicine.  If you wish to have advice on a medical problem, please consult a doctor. Every person is different and I cannot guarantee that any information provided will work for everyone.  You are responsible for your own health and any decision to alter your health is your own choice. Please consult a doctor before making any serious health changes.

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