small-leafed holly


Ilex sp.

L. 1753

pronounced: EYE-leks species

(Aquifoliaceae — the holly family)


common names: holly, small-leafed holly

Ilex is the old Latin name for the holm-oak or great scarlet oak (Quercus ilex), which has similar foliage to common holly, and is occasionally confused with it. The Ilex genus is the only living genus in the family Aquifoliaceae. Aquifolium is the Latin word for the holly tree, and it comes from two Latin words acus, a needle, and folium, a leaf. The word ‘holly’ comes from the Old English word for the tree, holen (holegn), which in turn comes from the Old High German hulis.

I am not sure of the species of this plant, except that it is one of the small-leafed hollies, possibly Ilex cornuta or a cultivar. The plant is growing in Hurst Street, Picnic Bay. I have not seen it in flower or in fruit, and so have no idea whether it is a male or female plant – the members of the Ilex genus are dioecious.

In many western cultures, holly is a traditional Christmas decoration, used especially in wreaths. The wood of most species is heavy, hard and whitish. One traditional use for the wood is for making white chessmen – ebony is used for the black pieces. Other uses are for wood-turning and inlaid word. In the 19th century looms used holly for the spinning-rod. Because the wood is dense and can be sanded very smooth, the rod was less likely to snag the threads than rods made from other woods. Fabergé used holly to make cases for his eggs, as well as for other small objects such as seals.

Many of the hollies are used as ornamental plants in gardens and parks, and they are often used for hedges: the spiny leaves make them difficult to penetrate, and they take well to pruning and shaping.

Between the 13th and 18th centuries, before the introduction of turnips for winter feed for cattle in Europe, holly was cultivated for this purpose, feeding cattle and sheep. Less prickly varieties were preferred, which I am sure pleased the animals.

Several holly species are used to make caffeine-rich herbal teas. The South American Ilex paraguariensis is boiled for the popular drinks Mate and Chimarrädo, and steeped in water for the cold Tereré. Ilex guayusa is used as a stimulant and as an admixture to the entheogenic tea ayahuasca – its leaves have the highest known caffeine content of any plant. In North and Central America a similar drink, called ‘the black drink’ was made from Ilex vomitoria and used ritually. Appalachian Tea, made from Ilex glabra, was a milder substitute for the black drink: it does not contain caffeine. In China, the young leaf buds of Ilex kudingcha are used to produce a tisane called kudīng chá - literally ‘bitter spike tea’. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is prized for its ability to disperse wind-heat, clear the head and the eyes, and resolve toxin. It is also said to calm fidgets, alleviate thirst, especially when one is suffering from a disease that causes fever, and to invigorate the digestion and improve mental focus and memory. It sounds useful.

The timber from most holly species is seldom available for commercial sale. It is an expensive domestic wood, and is usually available only in small quantities and sizes. It is attractive with a very uniform pale yellow colour with virtually no visible grain pattern, but knots are common, which means it can be difficult to work. It can develop a bluish to grey fungal stain if it is not dried rapidly after cutting. Holly trees are usually felled during the winter, and kiln-dried shortly afterwards to preserve the white colour of the wood. Holly turns well on the lathe, if knots are avoided. It glues, stains and finishes well. It is sometimes stained black as a substitute for ebony, and ‘black’ piano keys are often made from it.


Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.


Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2009
Page last updated 30th April 2019