Winter’s Jewel: Holly, the Berry-Bearing Plant Perfect for Gardens and Balconies

Green elegance, festive charm, and expert tips for your garden wonderland

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By Alex


Holly is a plant associated with Christmas and winter, and is very decorative, due to its red berries. Let’s find out more about its characteristics, properties and what care it requires.

What kind of plant is Holly?

Holly, scientifically known as Ilex, is a genus of around 600 species of flowering plants in the family Aquifoliaceae. These evergreen or deciduous plants are known for their glossy, spiky leaves and vibrant berries.

This plant holds cultural significance in various traditions and is often associated with festive decorations during the winter holiday season.

Description and varieties

Holly plants can be either trees or shrubs, and they are characterized by their distinctive serrated leaves and often bright red or orange berries. The leaves can be glossy or matte, depending on the species.

Common species include Ilex aquifolium, Ilex opaca, and Ilex vomitoria. The berries, while attractive, can be toxic if ingested, so caution is advised, especially in households with children and pets.

Habitat and geographic distribution

Holly is a versatile plant that can thrive in various environments.

It is native to temperate and subtropical regions of the world, with a concentration in Asia, Europe, North and South America. Holly prefers well-drained soil and can be found in woodlands, forests, and gardens. Certain species are adapted to specific climates, so it’s essential to choose a variety suitable for your local conditions.

Differences between Holly and Butcher’s Broom

While holly and butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus) share some visual similarities, they belong to different plant families. Unlike holly, butcher’s broom is a low-growing, evergreen shrub that lacks the characteristic glossy leaves and bright berries of holly. The stems of butcher’s broom are flattened and bear small, greenish flowers, followed by red berries.

While both plants are valued for their ornamental qualities, holly is more commonly associated with festive decorations.

Looks like it’s Christmas time!

Customs and traditions

Holly is a sacred plant and bringer of luck. In the past it was used to drive away bad luck from homes, evil spirits and people’s slander, thus bringing serenity and protection to the house.

Today its leaves are used for several Christmas craft ideas and decorations, to create garlands, decorate homes and embellish tables, particularly during the Christmas period.

How to grow holly

Growing holly can be a rewarding endeavor, whether for ornamental purposes or for harvesting its branches for festive decorations. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to grow holly:

  • Choose the Right Variety: Select a species or cultivar that suits your climate and space. Some varieties are better suited for colder climates, while others thrive in warmer regions.
  • Sunlight: It prefers partial to full sunlight. Ensure that the chosen location receives adequate sunlight for optimal growth.
  • Soil: Plant holly in well-drained, slightly acidic to neutral soil. Amending the soil with organic matter can improve fertility.
  • Planting: Dig a hole twice the size of the root ball and place the plant in the center. Water thoroughly after planting.
  • Watering: Keep the soil consistently moist but not waterlogged, especially during the plant’s establishment period. Once established, holly is relatively drought-tolerant.
  • Mulching: Apply a layer of mulch around the base of the plant to retain moisture and suppress weeds.
  • Pruning: Prune your plants in late winter or early spring to shape and control their size. Remove dead or diseased branches regularly.
  • Propatation: The propagation of holly involves various methods, with cutting being the predominant and widely employed technique. This involves taking long cuts at the plant’s base, specifically from the female flowers. In the summer, these cuttings are carefully placed in a substrate composed of a 50-50 mix of sand and peat. Once successful rooting occurs, typically by the following spring, the young seedlings are ready for transplantation into the soil.

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Care and Maintenance

To ensure the health and vibrancy of your holly plant, follow these care tips:

  • Fertilization: Feed your plants with a balanced, slow-release fertilizer in spring to support growth.
  • Pest Control: Keep an eye out for pests such as scale insects or spider mites. Treat infestations promptly with insecticidal soap or neem oil.
  • Watering: While holly is relatively drought-tolerant, regular watering during dry spells is essential, especially for young plants.
  • Protection from Winter Winds: In regions with harsh winters, consider providing wind protection for holly plants to prevent desiccation.

Illnesses and Parasites

Holly plants are generally hardy, but they can be susceptible to certain diseases and pests. Common issues include:

  • Leaf Spot: Fungal diseases like leaf spot can affect its leaves. Apply fungicides as a preventive measure, and ensure proper spacing between plants for adequate air circulation.
  • Scale Insects: These small, immobile insects can infest holly plants, sucking sap from leaves. Control scale with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil.
  • Spider Mites: These tiny pests can cause stippling on leaves. Regularly spray the foliage with water to discourage spider mites, and use insecticidal soap if infestations persist.

Medicinal properties of holly

These plants, particularly the leaves and berries, have been traditionally associated with various medicinal uses in certain cultures. However, it’s important to note that while holly has a long history of symbolic and cultural significance, scientific evidence supporting its medicinal properties is limited. Additionally, some species of holly, particularly those with toxic berries, can be harmful if ingested.

  • Leaves: The leaves of holly (Ilex) have been suggested to have potential therapeutic properties. They contain compounds such as saponins, flavonoids, and tannins, which are known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In some traditional practices, holly leaves have been used in decoctions or teas for ailments such as fevers, coughs, and respiratory issues.
  • Berries: While holly berries are visually attractive, they are known to be toxic and can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea if ingested. It’s crucial to exercise caution and prevent accidental ingestion, especially in households with children and pets.
  • Roots: There is limited information regarding the medicinal properties of holly roots. In traditional herbal medicine, certain plant roots are used for various purposes, but specific details about the therapeutic properties of holly roots are not well-documented.

Phytotherapeutic Considerations

Phytotherapy involves the use of plant-derived substances for medicinal purposes. If you are interested in exploring the potential phytotherapeutic properties of holly, it’s essential to approach it with caution and consult with a qualified healthcare professional. Scientific research on the medicinal properties of holly is relatively scarce, and the potential risks associated with its toxicity should be taken into account.

Safety Considerations

  1. Toxicity: Some species of this plant, particularly those with bright red or orange berries, are toxic if ingested. It’s crucial to be aware of the specific species of holly you have and to prevent accidental ingestion.
  2. Consultation with Healthcare Professionals: Before using holly or any other plant for medicinal purposes, it’s advisable to consult with a healthcare professional. They can provide guidance on safety, potential interactions with medications, and evidence-based alternatives.
  3. Traditional Uses: If you are considering using holly for traditional purposes, it’s important to rely on well-established traditional practices and be aware of any potential risks.

It is important to remind that, while holly has a rich cultural history and some traditional uses, the scientific evidence supporting its medicinal properties is limited. Caution should be exercised, especially due to the toxicity of certain holly species. Always seek advice from healthcare professionals before using any plant for medicinal purposes.

Traditional recipes with holly

Holly has been traditionally used in some cultures for its purported medicinal properties. One way to harness these potential benefits is by preparing a holly decoction. Please note that the use of holly for medicinal purposes should be approached with caution, and it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional before trying any herbalcol remedies.

Holly decoction recipe


  • 1 cup fresh holly leaves (ensure they are from a non-toxic variety)
  • 2 cups water


  1. Wash the holly leaves thoroughly to remove any dirt or contaminants.
  2. In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil.
  3. Add the fresh leaves to the boiling water.
  4. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 15-20 minutes.
  5. Remove the saucepan from heat and let the decoction cool.
  6. Strain the liquid to remove the leaves, and the decoction is ready for use.

Note: This decoction is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice. It’s crucial to consult with a healthcare provider before using holly or any other plant for medicinal purposes.


Holly, with its iconic appearance and cultural significance, is a versatile and attractive plant that can thrive in various environments. Whether used for ornamental purposes or exploring its potential medicinal properties, growing and caring for this plant can be a rewarding experience.

Understanding its cultivation, care requirements, potential issues, and even exploring traditional recipes like this decoction can enhance your appreciation for this iconic plant.

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