Remember there are two different types of Holly plants, the evergreen types, and the deciduous types (the ones that lose their leaves in winter). Most of the Holly plants have separate male plants and female plants, and only the female plants will produce the berries. The berries are very showy, and on most of the varieties produce red fruits, but some are blue, black, yellow, or white. The fruit production makes the plants very desirable and attractive to wildlife and people or children. Cut branches are many times used indoors for holiday and winter decorations. Holly branches are perfect indoors for people with allergies as they do not contain dust, pollen or fragrances. Once indoors, the berries may dry and fall off which may make them available to children or pets to find and sample.
Are Holly Berries Poisonous to Humans?
It has been posted on many sites and written that the leaves, stems and berries may be poisonous to humans. Many of these evergreen types have very sharp spines on the leaves which would deter anyone from probably trying to eat many of them. There have been reports of Indians and early settlers making tea from the leaves and berries in the early years. For humans, the berries will taste bitter and may cause an upset stomach or act as a mild laxative, if enough are ingested. While health benefits of holly are elusive, significant health harms have not been documented.
Much of the following information is being taken from an article written by Dick Bir, North Carolina State University, and from the book "Plants That Poison". The berries of all species of Ilex are reported to be poisonous if eaten in quantity (and that is the key here). The toxic principle is ilicin. Although it's not considered to be very poisonous, the attractive red or other colored berries should be considered dangerous to small children -- symptoms listed include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. If large quantities of the berries have been ingested, it is suggested vomiting induced followed by activated charcoal, and obviously medical professionals need to be involved as soon as possible. We checked for specific toxicity references from landscape selections and found almost nothing.
Therefore, it seems that rather than panicking if holly berries or leaves are ingested, please should remember that fatalities are unknown. If there are poisonous properties, they are frequently overstated. No part of the plant taste good to humans so most would not be interested in eating more after tasting. If you're not watching what your toddlers are eating, you probably have much more to fear from common beverages, condiments and household chemicals than from Hollies in the landscape.
Are Holly Berries Poisonous to Dogs, Cats, & Other Pets?
What about pets like dogs, cats and horses: are the leaves and berries toxic to these animals? The leaves and berries are of low toxicity to these animals. Again, the taste of the leaves (and in some cases the spines on the leaves) and the berries just do not taste very good and they will probably not eat much of any part of the Holly plants. If these animals were to consume enough, the symptoms are vomiting, diarrhea, and depression.
Are Holly Berries Poisonous to Bird?
What about holly plants and songbirds and migratory birds in your yard? Feeding the birds is wildly entertaining and Nature Hills devotes so much of our production to growing so many plants that produce food for wildlife. Creating backyard wildlife habitats has become so popular to attract more songbirds, migratory birds and a whole lot more interesting landscape. Planting a good mix of evergreen and deciduous plants that produce food is where to start – and Holly plants are included in that mix to feed the birds.
Eastern Red cedar, Arborvitae and American Holly make great cover and protection plants for the birds. Now add plants like Viburnums, Holly, Inkberry, Dogwood, Sumac, Black Chokeberry, Crabapples and Hawthorns – and you have yourself the start of a good thing. Depending upon where you live, Cedar waxwings, swallows, bluebirds, robins, chickadees, finches, cardinals will enjoy what you have developed for them. Add a few bird feeders and keep the seed dry and the feeders clean and you will have a lot of visitors.
Holly plants are excellent bird feeders and the fruits are very desirable to birds. Some fruits from plants like Viburnums and Holly plants may not be the first fruits to be taken by birds. The birds seem to know what is most desired at different times of the year. Sometimes the fruit on these plants need to hang on and maybe even go through the freeze-thaw cycle to make the fruits more palatable to the birds. You may see a flock of cedar waxwings come through your yard and clean up all the fruit on a tree in a matter of a day or two. Holly berries will not harm the birds feeding on them so do not forget to include them in your backyard wildlife refuge.