Holly – a useful Christmas evergreen in your Garden

espresso coffee cup

The weather in 2012 had a detrimental effect on the coffee bean crop: bad news for coffee lovers. But there may be an alternative growing in your garden. Did you know that certain Holly leaves can be brewed to make a caffeine rich drink? As a confirmed espresso lover, who had tried and not liked dandelion root coffee, this was an interesting drink to explore…


The Holly (Ilex) is a species of both evergreen and deciduous broad leaved trees, shrubs and climbers ranging across both tropical and temperate zones. Whilst many people will be thinking of either the European Holly (Ilex aquifolium Europea) or the American Holly (Ilex aquifolium opaca) it is the tropical and sub tropical species that are the richest (if that is the term) in caffeine.

The leaves of several species of Ilex contain caffeine and are used to make a stimulating drink. The best known caffeine drink from Holly is yerba maté, made from the leaves of Ilex aquifolium paraguayensis. This South American sub tropical species grows naturally in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. Although the Spanish ‘yerba’ suggests it is an herbaceous plant, it is an evergreen tree. The leaves are not the prickly edged ones most Europeans and North Americans think of when visualising holly, but are glossy green with serrated edges. This Paraguayan tea (or coffee) tree can grow to eighteen metres and the berries or fruits are dark purple/red; an attractive contrast to the leaves.

As well as containing caffeine (rich in anti antioxidants), Ilex leaves have anti-inflammatory properties and a high levels of vitamins. The beneficial properties of yerba mate don’t stop there. Those of you who are sensitive to caffeine, if it keeps you awake for example, may find these caffeine rich Holly leaves more to your taste. Although there are high levels of caffeine, enough to give you that ‘buzz’, the brew doesn’t seem to cause the ‘jitters’ that some people find an unwelcome side effect of coffee drinking.

holly, variegated

The Maté tree has also been cultivated in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, where the refreshing brew is a popular drink. Yerba mate has quite a grassy taste, so not what you’d expect from coffee, more as you would expect from green tea; but with that caffeine ‘kick’ of course. As the aforementioned espresso lover, who is also partial to nettle tea, I liked yerba mate better than I thought I might. I will drink it again, although I won’t be giving up the coffee beans just yet.

As for making a brew of tea or coffee from other Holly species, it is possible. North American Ilex aquifolium can be made in to a tea, and was used as such during the American Civil War (1861-65). The main problem here is that the leaves are toxic and can cause vomiting, so careful preparation is required.

The following is one way to prepare the Holly leaves for brewing into a drink, but I do not recommend it as it does come with a health warning. Once you’ve picked your Holly leaves, let them air dry first; this is part of the de-toxification process, as most of the harmful chemicals are contained in the waxy outer coating of the leaf. This poisonous outer layer is there to dissuade animals such as deer from eating the Holly. You would then go on to roast the leaves; crush them and prepare your brew using a tea infuser. Hot rather than boiling water is better, as boiling water can turn the drink bitter. This is also true of yerba maté leaves.

American Holly  is naturally found in many of the eastern states of America. Also known as Christmas Holly, or white Holly, legend has it that when the Pilgrims landed from England in Massachusetts at in December 1620 the American tree reminded them of the European Ilex aquifolium. It has similar glossy green evergreen leaves and red berries and so was perfect for decorating their houses in the traditional manner to which they were accustomed.

And as for the decorative and wildlife friendly uses that Holly can be put to in your garden, well, that’s another blog…or why not have a read of our eBook “In Your Winter Garden with Plews Garden Design”? It’s available from Amazon and Smashwords in formats to suit PC, iPad and Kindle

If you would like some garden design advice, so your winter garden looks like a wonderland, get in touch

Holly 'ferox'


Some Related Gardening blogs you may enjoy:

Christmas Plants – some questions and answers

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

Winter Evergreens in your Garden and your Home

Tomatoes and the Aztecs

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