Holly bush berries poisonous

Gardening FAQ

Hollies (Ilex spp.) are dioecious, meaning that they produce male and female flowers on different plants. The most common reason for a lack of berries is that the tree is a male or that a male tree is not available nearby to pollinate a female one.

The male pollinator does not need to be right next to the female plant. Hollies are pollinated mainly by bees. Even 200 feet is within the range that bees can carry pollen. A large male holly tree can pollinate numerous female trees.

Hollies are most efficiently pollinated by plants of the same species or variety. Thus, the ‘Jersey Knight’ cultivar of the American holly is able to pollinate many other female American hollies. For English holly (Ilex aquifolium) cultivars, which are very popular hollies, specific cross-fertilizing pairs have been developed, e.g. ‘Silver Milkboy’ and ‘Silver Milkmaid’, or ‘China Boy’ and ‘China Girl’.

There are a few self-pollinating hollies (strictly “parthenocarpic” or sterile plants). For these you need to grow only the female plants. Examples are Ilex x ‘Nellie Stevens’ and Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii’.

There are a number of other reasons why hollies may not produce fruit:

  • The tree is too young. Hollies grown from seeds require 3-5 years or even longer to bloom. Trees grown from cuttings need only 1-2 years before they bloom.
  • The bee population may be low that particular year.
  • If the tree is growing in poor conditions, a cycle may develop of alternate good and poor years for berry production.
  • Too much or too little nitrogen-rich fertilizer can be a problem.
  • Very dry weather may cause a tree to drop its flowers or berries.
  • Over-pruning or early pruning can also be a reason. If flowers are cut off in the spring, obviously no berries can be produced. Summer or early fall pruning may remove stems that would bloom next spring.
  • A late frost may kill the flowers in spring.
  • All hollies do not bloom at the same time. Thus, if the male plant is not blooming at the same time as the females, fertilization cannot occur.
  • Although reputable nurseries properly label plants, mistakes can be made–you may have a male plant!

Although this article emphasizes evergreen hollies, it is important to note that deciduous hollies are also dioecious. For example, for the commonly grown Sparkleberry deciduous holly (I. serrata x vertilicillata ‘Sparkleberry’), a male companion (‘Apollo’) from the same cross is available.

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Like mistletoe and poinsettia, holly is prized for its beauty and feared for its rumored toxicity. But studies show that much like its two Christmas companions, holly is not quite as deadly as portrayed. Its berries, which contain a caffeinelike alkaloid, might cause irritation, but a fatal ingestion is unlikely.

Image Credit…Leif Parsons

According to a one study by the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, plant exposures are the fourth most common cause of poisoning in the country. Ingestion of holly is among the five most common when it comes to plants.

A study by researchers at the University of Rochester reviewed 103 cases of toxic berry ingestion over two years, all involving children who swallowed six or fewer berries of holly, yew or nightshade. The children who were given ipecac experienced vomiting, diarrhea and “sedation.” The others, who were simply monitored closely, did not, suggesting that symptoms attributed to holly and other berries might be a result of ipecac. When accidental ingestion occurs, scientists said, it is best to consult a poison control center. But no need to banish that bough of holly.

Department of Animal Science – Plants Poisonous to Livestock

Frequently (and not so frequently) Asked Questions

BRIEF: Are Burford holly berries poisonous?
We have several large burford holly plants with berries, on our church grounds. We have been told that some holly berries are poisonous. Can you assist me in defining whether burford holly berries are poisonous, toxic, etc., and to what extent?
I am kind of releuctant to say much about holly, because that common name is applied to a lot of different kinds of plants from a variety of families. As common as it is in the South, I am not familiar with the specific toxic properties of Burford Holly, but I am going to assume that you have Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii Nana’. Holly species (member of the genus Ilex) contain caffeine, theophylline and related compounds as well as some toxic glycosides that cause vomiting and gastrointestinal problems. At high doses, with some species, the GI symptoms and CNS depressing effects of unknown principles can out weigh the stimulatory effects of the caffeine-like compounds. You don’t want kids eating the holly berries – it is unlikely to kill them, but they will be pretty sick. Some holly species are used for beverages (mate in So. America for example) without too much trouble. I don’t know where burford falls in the poison to food gradient, but I wouldn’t eat any.

How to Identify a Shrub With Red Berries

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When sparkling red fruit captures your attention on a newly discovered shrub, it may be all about the berries. But duplicating that look in your garden requires that you identify the shrub. Berries themselves hold clues to the shrub’s identity, but you’ll have to dig deeper for your final answer. Time of year, berry shape and seeds, and the form of flower and berry clusters combine with leaf shape, placement and buds to provide the clues you need to identify your shrub.

Telltale Berries

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Whether red fruits hang singly or in large, juicy clusters, begging to be made into jam, they take the place and growth pattern of the flowers that produced them. Pendent clusters of translucent red berries on unbranched flower stems hint at the spring-flowering racemes of the garden red currant (Ribes rubrum cvs.), hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 7. Closer examination reveals tiny individual stalks that hold the early-summer berries against green summer leaves. Within each fruit lies a final clue — multiple seeds, which are the sign of the true berry.

Foliage Backdrops

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When leaves accompany red berries, their characteristics offer identification tips. Glowing red foliage behind large, drooping, scarlet clusters points to American Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americana). The undivided, maplelike leaves attach in pairs, opposite to one another, along the stems and live in USDA zones 2 through 7. Held in the flat-topped shape of the shrub’s spring-blooming, lacecap-style flower clusters, each late-summer fruit holds a single seed, telling you that these berry imposters are actually drupes.

Naked Winter Stems

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Twigs speak for themselves when persistent red fruits provide their only winter adornment. Single red drupes peppering the length of thornless stems in USDA zones 3 through 9 suggest American winterberry (Ilex verticillata). Scars left by leaves alternate on the stems, and round winter buds just above those scars come wrapped in shingle-like, overlapping scales. A near-identical, fruitless neighbor provides more evidence: winterberry requires pollination by a male shrub for the female plant to bear its abundant, vivid fruit.

Late-Arriving Visitors

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Long after other shrubs forfeit their bounty to raiding birds, a heavy crop of intact berries narrows the possibilities in USDA zones 4 through 9. Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) keeps its radiant, late-summer fruit virtually untouched into winter. Borne in dense, flat-topped bunches that mimic the clustering habit of the apple-blossom-like blooms they replaced, these glossy true berries go ignored by birds until freezing improves the taste. Alternating leaves, bright scarlet fall color and peeling, reddish-brown winter bark are characteristic of red chokeberry.

Evergreen and Armed

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Broad, green leaves still in their proper, alternating places on winter stems slim down the pool of botanical suspects in USDA zones 5 through 9. Look for abundant, single, shiny drupes nestled in where twigs and leaves armed with spiny teeth connect to branches. Fruited branches stretching beyond arm’s length and egg-shaped winter buds with hairy, overlapping scales suggest American holly (Ilex opaca), which is known to add its spiky beauty and red drupes to classic holiday decorations.

Needle-Like and Evergreen

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Narrow, needle-like leaves paired with red, winter berries call for a test: rolling a single needle between your fingers. If it won’t roll, look for flat, alternating needles in a horizontal plane along stem lengths in USDA zones 2 through 6. Individual cherry-red, lantern-like fruits with single seeds tucked into the fruit’s open bottom say the fruits belong to American yew (Taxus canadensis) or its cousins. Neither berries nor drupes, the unusual fruits are actually this conifer’s cones, which are a favored food for deer.

By Julie Christensen

Red berries are among the healthiest foods on the planet. High in anthocyanins, which are plant compounds that fight inflammation and cell damage, these tiny fruits are also low in calories and fat. But, don’t forget taste. Sweet, tart and flavorful, berries are delicious as a snack, in salads, on cereals, or for dessert. Include them in your daily diet for increased health.

When we think of red berries, we typically think of strawberries and raspberries, the most common red berries consumed in America. But don’t overlook round berries, such as currants and gooseberries. Many red berries grow wild throughout the country, but make sure you positively identify them since some red berries are toxic. Consult a field guide or take an expert with you to berry hunt in the wild.

Exploring Red Berries

Below are some of the most common red berries growing in the United States.

Bittersweet .

Toxic. Invasive throughout much of the Northeast, this vining plant is often used for decorative purposes. The bright purple flowers are followed by small, rounded fruit that ripen from green to orange to red.

Buffaloberry .

Found throughout the Rocky Mountains and the West, this shrub has sage colored leaves that resemble a Russian Olive. The red or orange fruits appear in the fall. They make excellent jam, but cause diarrhea if eaten raw.

Butcher’s Broom .

Toxic. This small, shrubby plant has tough leaves with pointed tips. The berries are round and bright red.

Chokecherry .

This plant isn’t really a berry, but a relative of the cherry. It is used to make sauces and jellies. Chokecherries grows wild throughout most of the United States on shrubs or even trees. Pick the berries when they’re deep red to almost purple. They have a bitter flavor, but taste delicious when processed into syrup. The leaves, seeds and bark are toxic.


Currants prefer cool temperatures and moist soils. The tart, juicy fruit is usually red although some varieties are white to pink. Currant juice makes excellent wines and jellies.


Elderberries are easy to grow and make lovely landscaping plants. The fruit are red, purple or black, depending on the species. They can cause indigestion if eaten raw, but make delicious syrups and wine. Researchers have found that elderberry syrup is effective for relieving cold and flu symptoms. Not all species produce edible fruit.


Very tart translucent green fruits ripen to red. Some varieties remain green or are pink when ripe. Use gooseberries in pies and preserves.

Raspberries .

Unbelievably expensive to buy at the grocery store, raspberries are simple to grow in a home garden. Choose a fall-bearing variety if you live in an area with harsh winters and spring frosts. Eat raspberries fresh, freeze them or make them into jam and syrup.

Rose hip

Many rose varieties, including wild roses, produce rose hips after blooms fade. The hips are seedy, with a slightly sweet, slightly bitter taste. They can be used in jams, syrups, wine and more, and are a good source of vitamin C.

Spindle .

Highly toxic. This low-lying shrub produces pinkish-red, lobed fruit. The fruit contain a bright orange seed and appears in the fall.

Strawberry .

Besides being delicious, wild and cultivated strawberries are an excellent source of vitamin C. Strawberries need a bit more care than other berries, but homegrown strawberries taste infinitely better than those found in the stores. Even a small plot or container will yield several pints of juicy fruit.

Want to know more about edible and non-edible berries?

Visit the links below:

Did we miss any red berries? Leave a comment and let us know!

When she’s not writing about gardening, food and canning, Julie Christensen enjoys spending time in her gardens, which includes perennials, vegetables and fruit trees. She’s written hundreds of gardening articles for the Gardening Channel, Garden Guides and San Francisco Gate, as well as several e-books.

About those red berries: the good, the bad and the ugly


As we think of the approaching holidays, decorating with red and green in our homes comes to mind. And what is better than decorating with plants with red berries from our yards? Before you start, consider whether your red berry plants are “bad berries” or “good berries.”

The Bad Berries

Although beautiful, these are plants that are either classified by the UF/IFAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants as non-native invasive species or are on the “caution” list. The first, coral ardesia (Ardesia crenata), was introduced into Florida from Asia as an ornamental in the early 1900s.

It has dark waxy leaves with scalloped edges and has bright red fruits. It was valued in the landscape for its small stature, rarely growing taller than four feet, but unfortunately, coral ardesia has escaped from residential landscapes. It quickly forms mats of seedlings, as the seeds have an incredibly high germination rate, and it has the ability to grow in deep shade. As a result, it has displaced native trilliums, wild violets, and ferns.

Coral ardesia lacks insect predators, as they cannot digest the chemicals in the leaves, and has become such a problem in our area that days are regularly scheduled in local parks to destroy them. They are best dug up by the roots, although, while relatively small, one can pull them up when the soil is loose and moist. Care should be taken not to spread the red berries, which are best bagged and discarded with household garbage.

The second “bad” red berry plant often found in local landscapes is nandina (Nandina domestica), also known as heavenly bamboo. This plant was also introduced from Asia and has for years been considered a staple in the southern garden. Nandina is an erect evergreen shrub that grows to six to 10 feet in height, three to five feet wide, and has cane-like stems that resemble bamboo.

The leaves are pinnate (many small leaves on a stem), and, while evergreen, the leaves can be red-tinged in winter. In early summer there are terminal clusters of tiny white-to-pink flowers. Shiny red berries follow the flowers in fall and winter. It spreads both through underground sprouts from roots and by seeds.

Birds love nandina berries, but as it turns out, the berries contain cyanide and other alkaloids which are toxic to birds, cats, and dogs. When dozens of cedar waxwings were found dead in nearby Thomas County, Georgia, necropsies revealed nandina berries in their stomachs, evidence of the berries’ toxicity to birds.

Unlike coral ardesia, this plant is quite difficult to remove because even the smallest piece of root will re-sprout. It can be controlled effectively by using any of several readily available general use herbicides. For tall plants, cut the stems and then apply herbicide. Collect and dispose of the berries in trash heading for the landfill. Repeat applications of herbicides may be necessary.

Luckily for those who love nandina’s colorful appearance, there are non-invasive varieties now available at nurseries, including Harbour Dwarf, Gulf Stream, Firepower, Firestorm, and Obsession. Note that the Jaytee Harbour Belle cultivar is considered invasive.

A third “bad berry” plant is the Sprenger’s asparagus fern (Asparagus aethiopicus), a plant which is a bit easier to keep from escaping your yard. If you have them in hanging baskets, you can easily remove the red berries and dispose of them with your household waste before they fall and sprout. Or, better yet, remove the small white flowers before seeds are set. Asparagus fern is classified on the “caution” list, so if you use it in your landscaping, please do not let any red berries escape into the environment.

The Good Berries

Fortunately, there are plenty of non-invasive plants that have red berries in the winter which you can enjoy. The largest group of plants with red berries is the holly (Ilex) family. Keep in mind that all hollies are dioecious (either male or female), and only the female plants flower and produce berries. Nurseries are aware of this and should sell you only female plants.

Commonly found hollies in the Tallahassee area include native American holly trees (Ilex opaca), and you may even have a volunteer or two in your yard. Like all hollies, the American holly produces red berries that are favored by birds. This holly forms a moderately small pyramidal-shaped tree. Many holly cultivars are readily available.

Dwarf Burford may be pruned into a shrub but is particularly beautiful when shaped into a tree form. Savannah and Palatka are small pyramidal-shaped trees that are favorites of landscapers and produce myriad red berries. An additional advantage of hollies is that they are deer-resistant. Your garden center can help you find additional holly varieties to add to your landscape.

If your yard is like mine, you may have another native holly growing that was there prior to the construction of your house. These may be the native yaupon hollies (Ilex vomitoria) that multiply readily by underground runners.

The name comes from the fact that native peoples brewed the leaves into a high caffeine liquid that was used as a purgative in both ceremonial and recreational use (don’t try this at home!). A dwarf version of the yaupon, Nana, is commonly used as a specimen or hedge plant in our area, but the female plants rarely produce berries.

Another “good berry” plant worth mentioning is firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea). In the spring it produces many clusters of small white flowers, followed by a huge fall/winter crop of red, yellow, or orange berries that birds love. This shrub is thorny and can be trained as an espalier against a wall, allowed to sprawl down a slope, or even shaped into a topiary. You can use the thorns to your advantage by planting it as a barrier.

And, finally, there is a great little plant, partridge berry (Mitchella repens), which is vine-like and hugs the ground. It has white four-petaled flowers in late winter and early spring and produces bright red berries in spring and summer that last a long time, often through the winter. If you have an area in your yard that is shady and does not support the growth of turfgrass, partridge berry may be the plant to you. While you can purchase this plant at garden centers (look in the areas with ground covers), you may find it growing as a volunteer as it is native to our area.

So, when you think of winter berries, just remember to get rid of the coral ardesia and invasive nandinas, remove the berries from your asparagus ferns, and plant the “good berry” plants to enjoy beautiful red berries in your yard and in your home decorating.

Susan Barnes is a Master Gardener volunteer with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County. For gardening questions, email the extension office at [email protected]

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