Christmas chemistry, the science of holly

Written by: Captain Skellett // December 21st, 2011 // Poisons

pudding with holly

Chocolate orange icecream pudding with side of holly. Image by webmink

Green and red, classic Christmas colours, adorn the spiky holly shrub. A sprig may garnish puddings, but garnish nibblers like me must hold back on holly for it is poisonous in large doses – though some leaves can make a tasty beverage!

Holly includes about 400 species in the genus Ilex. The cultivated species is Ilex aquifolium, and about 20 or 30 of those bright berries can kill an adult. Poisonings are more likely in pets or children, and about five berries will make a kid feel sick.

It’s the usual suspects in symptoms – sleepiness, sore tummy, vomiting, diarrhoea. Larger doses cause paralysis, kidney damage and death.

Chemically, they contain a cocktail of active ingredients. Among them are the triterpenes, precursors to steroids which are cytotoxic (kill cells), steroids and a nitrile called menisdaurin.

Traditional medicines use holly for fever, gout and chronic bronchitis.

Holly, image by 4nitsirk, flickr

A couple of species native to North America, I. vomitoria aka yaupon and I. cassine, make caffeine and were used to make “black drink”, a stimulating brew also used as a vomit-causing emetic.

South American species I. paraguariensis contains as much as 1.6% caffeine (five times more than the above species) and some of the cocoa chemical theobromine in their leaves, and tasty tannins.

Also called yerba mate, I. paraguariensis is brewed to make mate tea, which is delicious. It’s pronounced MAH-tay, but be careful not to put the emphasis on the second syllable. Wikipedia says that makaes mah-TAY, which means “I killed” in Spanish.

So it’s fine to have a sprig of holly in the house for Christmas, just don’t make a holly pie out of it!

Captain Skellett

I be Captain Skellett. Me blog started in April 2009 when I was working full time and didn’t get a chance to talk science. Now I have changed jobs and talk science all the time, but that doesn’t stop me blogging. More About Captain Skellett   Google


5 Responses to “Christmas chemistry, the science of holly”

  1. Gemma Killen says:

    I drink Yerba Mate tea when I need to study! I mix it with a dash of chamomile and some chai and voila! I get super concentratey without the jitters.

    In fact, my new uni serves mate chai in their library cafe.

  2. Melisse Clark says:

    Don’t drink too MUCH or HOT…it’s been associated with oral, throat and aesophogeal cancer. Might be better to get you caffeine with a coffee. : )

    Gemma Killen Reply:

    @Melisse Clark, Well that’s just terrifying. I’m sure someone somewhere has associated coffee with cancer. Also coffee gives me superbad headaches.

    @Melisse Clark, I’ve heard (and haven’t yet checked) that those cancers are associated with drinking ANYTHING that’s very hot. So maybe we should all switch to ice tea?

  3. […] Christmas chemistry, the science of holly | A Schooner of ScienceDec 21, 2011 … 4 Responses to “Christmas chemistry, the science of holly”. Gemma Killen says: … Gemma Killen Reply: February 3rd, 2012 at 3:56 am … […]

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