July 14 2024

Medicinal uses of common Holly (Ilex aquifolium)


Common holly(<em>Ilex aquifolium</em>)

The common holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a shrub native to Europe, belonging to the family of Aquifoliaceae, can reach 6 to 7 feet tall, but can reach 10 meters. coriceas leaved and thorny, evergreen, dark green on the top and pale on the underside. The plant was used in ancient times. There is evidence of its utilization in classical Greece to treat prostate hypertrophy.

The flowers are grouped in corymbs of white or yellowish elements. In the Iberian Peninsula the shrub is widely distributed, including the Balearic Islands, although more scarce as more south. Its preferred habitat is the Umbrian and wooded areas, especially in the forests of beech, chestnut and oak.

holly can be found throughout Europe, but mainly in the central and western regions of the continent. Also can be found in the adjacent areas of Asia. From their places of origin, the plant has been carried by man to North America and New Zealand.

Blooms in the second half of the spring (April to June in the northern hemisphere), collecting the young leaves for medicinal purposes during the same seasonal period. The fruits are small red berries that usually mature well into the autumn.


Common name:

Holly, common holly, English holly, European holly and Christmas holly)

Scientific name:

Besides varietal names as Algarviensis, Barcinonae, Heterophyllum, laetevirens, Lusitanica, etc.., Holly receives other names like Ilex Balearica, I. Montserratense or I.Perado, all referring to the same plant.

In America, a variety of holly, Ilex paraguensis is very important because it is the tree of yerba mate.


Despite its diffusion, Holly has not received in-depth studies of their composition, experimental or clinical value, being very poor scientific literature about it.

The plant contains a bitter principle, the ilicin, plus ilexanthin (yellow dye), theobromine (in the leaves) and caffeic acid (not to be confused with coffee or caffeine). Theobromine has bronchodilator effects, so it was used in asthma.

The ethanolic extract of the fruit of holly contains cyanogenic glycosides. The analysis of methanolic extract from the seeds of holly discovered two derivatives phenyletilacetic with antioxidant properties, 2,4-dihydroxyphenylacetic acid and its methyl ester[1].

Traditional applications     

The leaves are considered sudoriferous, so that has been used in colds, pleurisy, intermittent fever, smallpox, rheumatism and diseases that cause jaundice (yellowing of the skin). Its diuretic and laxative properties were attributed to this part of the plant. For this purpose, holly would be prepared in the form of cooking. To get the diuretic effect or relieving chronic bronchitis, rheumatism and other forms of osteoarticular pain, is prepare a tincture with holly leaves. Another use, no longer used, was as muscle toning, marinate with wine leaves.

Holly berries are a potent emetic and purgative, being used in gout. Reduced to powder, berries have been used as astringents to check intestinal bleeding. They are toxic. It is not advisable the use of holly leaves and berries for medicinal purposes.

According to data from animal experimentation, the plant extract could cause a fatal drop in blood pressure.

In the central and southern England, holly was used to treat chilblains. They beat the lesions with a sprig of holly until they bled. In this way it was thought that improved the circulation or, according to another interpretation, it was left out cold blood of chilblains. They are also treated with a cream made with lard mixed with the powder of the berries. These two modes of application of holly were used also for the treatment of rheumatism, a disease in which was prescribed as an alternative to the infusion of leaves of the plant.

In Hampshire it resorted to administer milk in a cup made ??of wood (Ilex variegata) for the treatment of whooping cough and other spasmodic coughs provoking vomiting. Ireland holly was used for local treatment of burns. Some authors collected the healing of neck contractures hitting in situ with a sprig of holly.

Clinical Studies     

No clinical studies are available about this plant.

Experimental studies     

A unique experimental study evaluates the Ilex aquifolium extract against different types of malignant cell lines. Along with other botanical species, Holly showed a significant growth inhibitory effect of colon cancer cells LoVo colon, prostate cancer and glioblastoma P3 U373 glioblastoma [2].


The lack of studies, the fall into disuse and Holly potential toxic risk call for extreme caution with this plant. MEDIZZINE reiterates the convenience to abstain of its use, since nothing seems to back it up.


1. Nahar L, Russell WR, Middleton M, Shoeb M, Sarker SD. Antioxidant phenylacetic acid derivatives from the seeds of Ilex aquifolium. Acta Pharm. 2005 Jun;55(2):187-93.
2. Frederich M, Marcowycz A, Cieckiewicz E, Magalizzi V, Angenot L, Kiss R. In vitro anticancer potential of tree extracts from the Walloon Region forest. Planta Med. 2009 Dec;75(15):1634-7.

Date upgrade of page: January 29, 2011.


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