Are Holly Berries Poisonous to Humans & Animals?

Are Holly Berries Poisonous to Humans & Animals?


Holly bushes are gorgeous year-round favorites for specimens and hedges, plus winter interest and home décor! They are great cover and protection plants for the birds and we all love those glossy berries for fall and winter interest.

Supreme hedges and privacy, the Holly provides screening, looks great when sheared formally or left to grow neat and natural, and many have spines that make trespassers think twice!

But most of all, Holly berries are coveted by Birds! Depending upon where you live, Cedar Waxwings, Swallows, Bluebirds, Robins, Chickadees, Finches, and Cardinals will enjoy what you have planted for them. Add a few bird feeders and you will have a lot of visitors! Holly plants are excellent bird shelters too!

Holly berries will not harm the birds feeding on them, so be sure to include them in your backyard wildlife refuge and bird-friendly habitat! But should you be worried for yourself, your family, or your pets?

About Holly Bushes

There are two different types of Holly plants, the broadleaf evergreen type, and the deciduous type that lose their leaves in the autumn months.

holly bush

Most of the Holly plants also have separate male plants and female plants, and only the female plants will produce the berries. Pollinators go crazy for the white flowers on both male and female plants and you’ll love the spring show!

The berries that follow are very showy, and most of the varieties produce red fruits, but some are orange, blue, black, yellow, or white! You do need a male shrub planted in close proximity to the female shrubs in order for pollination to occur and therefore fruit.

The showy fruit production makes the plants very desirable and attractive to wildlife and people or children. Holly branches are perfect indoor décor 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.

Outdoors, sometimes the fruit on these plants needs 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.

Creating backyard wildlife habitats has become popular to attract more songbirds, and migratory birds and to create a more interesting landscape!

Are Holly Berries Poisonous to Humans?

Unfortunately - Yes!

picking holly

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 quantity is the key here).

The symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

The principal toxic compound in Holly berries is Illicin and some saponic glycosides. Holly also contains a caffeine-like alkaloid called theobromine, which is found in chocolate. The harm isn’t in one or two berries (which can cause digestive irritation), but when a person consumes ten to fifteen Holly berries, severe digestive distress can occur.

However, don’t panic! If Holly berries or leaves are ingested, please remember that fatalities are yet unheard of. There are poisonous properties, but they are frequently overstated. If large quantities of the berries have been ingested, it is suggested that vomiting be induced followed by activated charcoal, and obviously, medical attention as soon as possible!

There are typically no topical or skin reactions noted when handling these plants (however, gloves should be worn because of the spines).

Although Holly are not considered to be highly toxic, the attractive berries should be considered dangerous to small children, those with weakened immune systems or are more susceptible.

holly infographic

No part of the plant tastes good to humans, so most would not be interested in eating more after the first taste. You probably have much more to fear from common beverages, condiments, and household chemicals in the home than from Hollies in the landscape.

Tips For Including Holly In Your Landscape Safely

  • Watch kids and pets around these shrubs
  • Plant barrier plants as a buffer zone between the plants and small hands
  • Avoid having tables with food or beverages near these shrubs in case
  • Shear the shrubs after flowering to remove future fruit
  • Plant male-only shrubs or non-fruiting male clones
  • Keep cut berry stems away from food and out of reach of kids

Are Holly Berries Poisonous to Dogs, Cats, & Other Animals?

Regarding pets like dogs, cats, and horses/livestock, the leaves and berries have 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 just like what is seen in people - vomiting, diarrhea, and lethargy.

  • Plant Holly away from where pets spend long-term unmonitored time
  • Plant a buffer zone between the Holly and your pet's areas
  • Plant male-only shrubs or shear after flowering to remove the fruit before it forms
  • Plant Holly far away from paddocks and grazing areas

Staying Compliant with State and Local Restrictions on Plant Material

Nature Hills sells plants all across the country, which has its challenges. We work closely with every State and Federal Agricultural Law and Regulation to ensure that we are completely up to date with all restrictions each state has. With Plant Sentry™, Nature Hills is continuously evolving and keeping up with changes to remain compliant in all states that we ship to. .

Have Your Holly and Your Safety Too!

Holly may have a bad reputation but it’s grossly exaggerated. With just a few extra steps, precautions, and proper placement techniques, you can still enjoy these showy trees and shrubs all year round!

Nature Hills is here to keep you and your family happy and healthy and keep your landscape blooming!

Happy Planting!

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