Welcome back to #WildEdibleWednesday! We hope you enjoyed the break – we got a lot accomplished, and are still hard at work upgrading the Proving Ground. But more on that later – we’re here to talk about plants.
Our first Wild Edible of 2018 is Ilex opaca, or American Holly. Holly is definitely not edible and is generally considered poisonous, however, when used properly, it a useful and powerful medicinal plant. Hollies are found in temperate areas throughout the Northern Hemisphere from China to the Middle East to all over Europe and north America. The American Holly is the most common species in the United States, ranging through the eastern half of the U.S. from Florida to New England and from the coast west to Texas and Oklahoma. It isn’t picky about habitat, but flourishes best in moist, sandy lowland soils. In our area, it’s most commonly found in creek bottoms.
The largest and oldest hollies can grow slowly to nearly 100’ tall and 2-3’ in diameter, but holly is seen much more often as a small-to-medium understory tree or shrub ranging from 6’ to 40’ tall. It’s a broadleaf evergreen, bearing small oval leaves with very distinctive (and sharp!) thorns. The bark is smooth and gray. The trees are too small, too rare, and too slow-growing to be commercially viable, but the wood is very useful for us as bushcrafters. It’s in the sweet spot of being hard, durable, and split-resistant, yet still straight-grained and easy to carve. If you think this sounds like great material for tool handles or batons, you’d be right.
Holly is NOT edible. The beautiful bright red (or slightly orange, depending on the soil) berries are one of the classic examples of “just because the birds are eating it, doesn’t mean you can eat it.” Just like any other medicinal or recreational substance with toxic potential, dosage is everything. A large handful is usually deadly to most people. It causes violent, uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea, salivation, stupor, and eventual respiratory failure.
However… in the right dosage, all parts of the holly tree serve a medicinal purpose. When dried, the leaves make a great tea that tastes very similar to standard black tea, just without the caffeine. In the South during the Civil War, the Union blockade stopped all shipments of British tea to the Confederacy, and we all know Southerners can’t do without their sweet tea… so holly-leaf tea became a common substitute. It also works well for clearing up the lungs and sinuses, and treating colds, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, as well as joint pain.
An infusion made from the bark is probably the most powerful native malaria treatment available in North America. It works much like quinine to reduce the extremely high brain-damaging fever that accompanies malaria infection – it was used to great effect in colonial Florida by the Seminoles and Spaniards alike.
Finally, about those berries… the emetic purgative effect, that is, the tendency of the berries to make the body eject everything inside of it, can be used for good. In cases of poisoning, 10-12 holly berries can be chewed and the juice swallowed to induce vomiting and diarrhea. Although inducing vomiting has fallen out of favor as a treatment for poisoning, and you should really consider carrying activated charcoal in your med kit, holly berries are definitely better than dying of poisoning. A smaller dose (approximately half the emetic dose) works as a laxative to get things moving down there. It won’t be without its consequences (you’ll have the mother of all upset stomachs) but it will definitely work.
Holly has symbolized eternal life, goodness, and defense against evil since time immemorial in both pre-Christian and Christian traditions. In the pagan traditions of northern Europe, holly and other evergreens like yew and pine symbolized eternal life for obvious reasons - unlike deciduous hardwoods, evergreens never “die” during the winter. Homes were decorated with boughs of holly during the winter solstice to protect against evil spirits and ensure prosperity in the coming year. When Christian missionaries began to spread throughout Europe, they took holly’s traditional meaning and used it as an illustration of Christ – the thorny leaves symbolize His crown of thorns, and the red berries the drops of His blood. And its evergreen nature became a sign of the eternal life that could be had through Him. So when Christmas replaced winter solstice celebrations as Christianity slowly spread across the continent, holly stayed put – decking the halls until the present day.