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Ilex aquifolium
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Asterids
Order: Aquifoliales
Family: Aquifoliaceae
Genus: Ilex
Species: I. aquifolium
Binomial name
Ilex aquifolium

Ilex aquifolium (Holly, or European Holly to distinguish it from related species) is a species of holly native to western and southern Europe, northwest Africa and southwest Asia.[1][2][3][4]

European Holly flowers; male above, female below (leaves cut to show flowers more clearly)

It is an evergreen tree growing to 10-25 m tall and 40-80 cm (rarely 1 m or more) trunk diameter, with smooth grey bark. The leaves are 5-12 cm long and 2-6 cm broad, variable in shape; on young plants and low branches, with three to five sharp spines on each side, pointing alternately upward and downward; on higher branches of older trees with few or no spines except for the leaf tip, often entire.[3][4]

The flowers are dioecious, white, four-lobed, and pollinated by bees. The fruit is a red drupe 6-10 mm diameter, containing four pits; although mature in late autumn, they are very bitter due to the ilicin content[5], and so are rarely touched by birds until late winter after frost has made them softer and more palatable.

Medicinal uses and constituents

Holly is rarely used medicinally due to its toxicity, but is diuretic, relieves fevers and has a laxative action.[6].

It contains saponins, the xanthine theobromine and a yellow pigment ilexanthin.[7]


An extract of European holly has led to a fatal drop in blood pressure in rats.[8]

The ilicin helps make them poisonous to people since it irritates the stomach and intestines, and other constituents render them harmful to the nervous system and heart. Ingestion of as few as twenty berries by adults can be fatal.[3][4]


  1. ^ Flora Europaea: Ilex aquifolium
  2. ^ Med-Checklist: Ilex aquifolium
  3. ^ a b c Rushforth, K. (1999). Trees of Britain and Europe. Collins ISBN 0-00-220013-9.
  4. ^ a b c Flora of NW Europe: Ilex aquifolium
  5. ^ Heinz, A. (1975). Drogenkunde. W. de Gruyter ISBN 313566001X
  6. ^ Wren, R.C. (1988). Potter's New Cyclopedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations. C.W. Daniel ISBN 0-85207-197-3.
  7. ^ Heinz, A. (1975). Drogenkunde. W. de Gruyter
  8. ^ Lassere, B. et al, (1983) Naturwissenschaft 70, 95

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