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Plant Profile: Holly

It’s the time of year when some Islanders are collecting natural greenery, sticks, and berries for seasonal decorations. Today’s PEI plant is commonly used for its splash of bright colour. This is Canada Holly (aka Winterberry, Ilex verticillata).


Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata)

You may be familiar with its relative, English Holly (Ilex aquifolium), a popular Christmastime symbol. Unlike that plant, Canada Holly leaves don’t last all winter, but its berries do (hence the Winterberry name), making it attractive both in the landscape and in seasonal decorations. Those bright red berries look attractive, but don’t be tempted to eat them. All parts of the plant - but especially the berries - contain theobromine, a chemical similar to caffeine. Theobromine also occurs in cocoa and chocolate, and is what makes those foods toxic to dogs. Too much theobromine will cause dizziness, high heart rate, low blood pressure, stomach cramps and nausea in people. (A close relative of Canada Holly is named Ilex vomitoria, giving you a clue to the effects!). Canada Holly is also high in saponins, compounds that are both water- and fat-soluble and foam when shaken (like soap!). Because of this, there has been some interest in using this plant to create a biodegradable surfactant (a compound that keeps two liquids from separating). In addition to being attractive, Canada Holly is useful to wildlife. Its persistent berries provide winter food for birds such as Ruffed Grouse and Blue Jays, and an early spring food source for returning migrants (or stragglers that stuck around) such as Robins, Waxwings and Flickers. Canada Holly is a common native species that can found along woodland edges, hedgerows and in coastal areas, especially on wetter sites across the Island. Another cool PEI plant!

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