Ilex /ˈaɪlɛks/, or holly, is a genus of 400 to 600 species of flowering plants in the family Aquifoliaceae, and the only living genus in that family. The species are evergreen and deciduous trees, shrubs, and climbers from tropics to temperate zones worldwide.
The genus Ilex is widespread throughout the temperate and subtropical regions of the world. It includes species of trees, shrubs, and climbers, with evergreen or deciduous foliage and inconspicuous flowers. Its range was more extended in the Tertiary period and many species are adapted to laurel forest habitat. It occurs from sea level to more than 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) with high mountain species. It is a genus of small, evergreen trees with smooth, glabrous, or pubescent branchlets. The plants are generally slow-growing with some species growing to 25 m (82 ft) tall. The type species is the European holly Ilex aquifolium described by Linnaeus,
Plants in this genus have simple, alternate glossy leaves, typically with a spiny toothed, or serrated leaf margin. The inconspicuous flower is greenish white, with four petals. They are generally dioecious, with male and female flowers on different plants, although there are exceptions.[which?]
The small fruits of Ilex, although often referred to as berries, are technically drupes. They range in color from red to brown to black, and rarely green or yellow. The "bones" contain up to ten seeds each. Some species produce fruits parthenogenetically, such as the cultivar ‘Nellie R. Stevens’. The fruits ripen in winter and thus provide winter colour contrast between the bright red of the fruits and the glossy green evergreen leaves. Hence the cut branches, especially of I. aquifolium, are widely used in Christmas decoration. The fruits are generally slightly toxic to humans, and can cause vomiting and diarrhea when ingested. However, they are a very important food source for birds and other wildlife, which help disperse the seeds.
The berries of various species contain Theobromine, a compound similar to caffeine. In very small doses, theobromine and other caffeines only mildly stimulate the nervous system. However larger amounts can cause dizziness, stomach pain, nausea, diarrhoea, elevated pulse rate, and low blood pressure, as well as drowsiness.
In winter, the bright red berries attract birds, who eat them after the frosts have reduced their toxicity. However, if household pets ingest holly, they are very likely to be poisoned, and it is a good idea to keep holly decorations out of reach of pets and children.
Several holly species are used to make caffeine-rich herbal teas. The South American Yerba Mate (I. paraguariensis) is steeped in hot water for the popular revigorating drinks Mate, and Chimarrão, and in cold water for the cold Tereré. Guayusa (I. guayusa) is used both 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, Yaupon (I. vomitoria), was used by southeastern Native Americans as a ceremonial stimulant and emetic known as "the black drink". Gallberry (Appalachian Tea, I. glabra) is a milder substitute for Yaupon and does not have caffeine. In China, the young leaf buds of I. kudingcha are processed in a method similar to green tea to make a tisane called kǔdīng chá (苦丁茶, roughly "bitter spikeleaf tea").
Between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, before the introduction of turnips, holly was cultivated for use as winter fodder for cattle and sheep. Less spiny varieties of holly were preferred, and in practice the leaves growing near the top of the tree have far fewer spines making them more suitable for fodder.
Holly was also once among the traditional woods for Great Highland bagpipes before tastes turned to imported dense tropical woods such as cocuswood, ebony, and African blackwood.Holly has been listed as one of the 38 plants that are used to prepare Bach flower remedies, a kind of alternative medicine promoted for its supposed effect on health. According to Cancer Research UK, "there is no scientific evidence to prove that flower remedies can control, cure or prevent any type of disease, including cancer".
Holly – more specifically the European holly, Ilex aquifolium – is commonly referenced at Christmas time. In many western cultures, holly is a traditional Christmas decoration, used especially in wreaths and illustrations, for instance on Christmas cards. Since medieval times the plant has carried a Christian symbolism, as expressed in the well-known carol "The Holly and the Ivy". However, the association of holly with winter celebrations almost certainly pre-dates Christianity. Druids wore holly wreaths on their heads.
In heraldry, holly is used to symbolize truth.
The Norwegian municipality of Stord has a yellow twig of holly in its Coat-of-arms.
In the extremely popular and best-selling Harry Potter novels, holly is used as the wood in the titular character’s wand.
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