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Can I Use Holly as a Garnish on My Food?

by Kelly McCoy

What better way to add a festive touch to your feast than with a garnish that itself evokes the spirit of the holidays? But before you tuck a sprig of holly into your Christmas pie, consider whether such a lovely garnish is worth the risk of making your guests ill. There are plenty of other seasonally-appropriate garnishes that are beautiful to look at and safe to consume.

Holly Is Toxic

Despite its beauty and festive nature, holly should not be used as a garnish on your food as it is considered poisonous. The toxin present in the berry of the holly plant is nearly identical to caffeine, and if consumed in large quantities, holly berries could make humans and animals ill -- this is especially true of children. Similar in appearance to English holly, Winterberry or Canada holly contains the same toxin and should not be used as garnish either.

Holly-Like Garnishes

Try using fresh cranberries arranged with fresh whole sage leaves, rosemary sprigs or fresh bay leaves to create your own holly-like garnish for savory dishes that is both festive and safe if consumed. For holiday desserts, sugared cranberries -- made by steeping fresh cranberries in simple syrup overnight then rolling in superfine sugar -- make a sparkly and delicious garnish and evoke the look of frosty holly berries. A simple cluster of fresh red currants would also work as either a sweet or savory garnish.

Other Holiday Garnishes

A traditional and edible sight around the holidays is citrus fruit. Whether left whole and arranged around a roast, or sliced and candied for a delicious dessert garnish, citrus fruits -- in particular, clementines -- are an easy and traditional way to embellish holiday dishes. Be wary of other traditional holiday items, though, such as mistletoe and poinsettia; these can cause stomach upset and other ill effects if ingested and should also not be used as garnish.

Ingredients as Garnish

One of the simplest yet most beautiful ways to garnish a dish for any occasion is by using one or more of the ingredients from the dish. For example, if your holiday feast includes a dish with sage and rosemary, use the leftover fresh herbs -- or buy a little extra -- and nestle them in bunches along the edge of your serving platter. Fresh herbs are an ideal garnish because they are so aromatic, especially when exposed to radiant heat from the food which it accompanies.

About the Author

Kelly McCoy has been writing for lifestyle blogs and online publications since 2010, specializing in recipes and techniques for the home cook. She holds a B.A. from Boston University and J.D. from the University of Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

Photo Credits

  • Polka Dot Images/Polka Dot/Getty Images