Skip to main content


What is Holly?

Ilex species are evergreen trees or shrubs with stiff, leathery leaves. The flowers are often white and produce fruits that range in color from black to bright red or yellow.

The genus Ilex consists of more than 400 species and requires a wet and equable climate. They are distributed worldwide except in arctic or arid regions. The major areas of distribution are Central and South America. The North American species are largely ornamental and derived from Central and South American species.

Scientific Name(s)

Ilex aquifolium, Ilex opaca, Ilex vomitoria

Common Name(s)

A number of members of the genus Ilex are referred to as "holly."Holly, English holly, Oregon holly, and American holly are the species most often associated with the ornamental Christmas holly. Yaupon, Appalachian tea, cassena, deer berry, Indian holly, and Indian black drink also are commonly discussed with the hollies.

What is it used for?

Traditional/Ethnobotanical uses

Plants in the holly family have been used as ornamentals and in herbal medicine for centuries. Early history records the European pagans offering holly branches as gifts during the Saturnalia. Early Christians decorated their homes with holly during Christmas, a practice that continues today. The early settlers in the southeastern United States made yaupon tea from I. vomitoria, reserving a stronger decoction for use as an emetic. I. opaca fruit tea had been used as a cardiac stimulant by the American Indians; the Chinese used it to treat coronary disease.

One of the most economically important species, Ilex paraguayensis or Maté tea (see separate monograph), has long been cultivated and used in Brazil and Paraguay as a tea-like beverage containing caffeine. The mixed leaves of Ilex cassine, I. vomitoria, and Ilex dahoon also were used for a hot drink called yaupon or black drink. Drinkers used it ceremonially to "cleanse" themselves, probably due to its sweat- and vomit-inducing effects. Another beverage made from the leaves of I. cassine and I. vomitoria was used as a stimulant tea in the southern United States during the Civil War.

Other uses

Holly is primarily used as a holiday decoration. Historically, it has been used in teas as an emetic and a CNS stimulant. There is little clinical research regarding the medicinal uses of holly.

What is the recommended dosage?

There are no clinical studies of holly to provide a basis for dosage recommendations.


Contraindications have not yet been identified.


Documented adverse effects. Avoid use.


None well documented.

Side Effects

The spines of some leaves may tear or puncture skin or mucus membranes


Although no fatalities have been reported, case reports found human toxicity. Ingestion can cause vomiting, diarrhea, stupor, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalance.


1. Holly. Review of Natural Products. Facts & Comparisons [database online]. St. Louis, MO: Wolters Kluwer Health Inc; July 2010.

More about holly

Professional resources

Related treatment guides

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.