Ilex mitis (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Ilex mitis (L.) Radlk.

Protologue: Rep. Brit. Assoc. Advancem. Sci. 1885: 1081 (1886).
Family: Aquifoliaceae

Vernacular names

African holly, Cape holly, watertree (En). Msaira (Sw).

Origin and geographic distribution

Ilex mitis is widespread, occurring in mountain areas from Sierra Leone east to Eritrea, Ethiopia and Kenya, and south to South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho; it also occurs in eastern Madagascar.


The wood is suitable for light construction, light flooring, interior trim, ship building, vehicle bodies, furniture, toys, novelties, musical instruments such as drums and guitars, tool handles, agricultural implements, railway sleepers, boxes, crates, vats, beehives, matches, veneer, plywood, hardboard, particle board and pulpwood. It has been in demand for buckboards and spokes in wagon construction, and for the heels of ladies shoes. It is also used as firewood and for charcoal production, although for the last purpose it seems less suitable.

The fruits are edible, being slightly sweet to slightly bitter, and boiled roots are also reported to be edible. In East Africa bark decoctions are administered for the treatment of sterility, and in southern Africa as an emetic and as an enema to treat fever and colic. Powdered bark is applied externally to treat rashes and sores. Influenza patients are washed with bark and leaf macerations. Roots are used to treat fits and swellings. In Madagascar bark and root decoctions are taken against gonorrhoea, whereas decoctions of leaves, stems, roots and bark are used to clean wounds. A pomade is made from Ilex mitis (containing 0.75% of purified extract) which is popular in Madagascar under the name ‘fanaferol’ as a skin care product to treat burns, sores, wounds and scars, and as a skin lightener. The flowers are an important source of nectar for honey bees; the honey is whitish and of good quality. The tree is planted in parks and large gardens for its decorative glossy leaves and red fruits. It is also planted in hedges.

Production and international trade

The wood is used locally and probably rarely available in the international trade. Bark and roots are commonly sold on local markets for medicinal purposes and can also be ordered through the Internet. In the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, the annual trade around 2000 averaged 5300 kg with a value of US$ 30,000. At the beginning of the 1990s ‘fanaferol’, based on Ilex mitis extract and traded in tubes containing 10 g of cream for skin care, has been commercialized.


The heartwood is whitish to pale grey, sometimes greyish green to brownish towards the centre of the log, and indistinctly demarcated from the 4–5 cm wide sapwood. The grain is straight, texture fine. The wood shows a conspicuous silver-grain figure on radial surfaces.

The wood is medium-weight, with a density of 590–690 kg/m³ at 12% moisture content. Drying should be done slowly and with care to avoid collapse and serious checking, twisting and end splitting. The rates of shrinkage are high, from green to oven dry 3.6–6.0% radial and 9.0–13.9% tangential. It takes about 2 months to air dry boards of 2.5 cm thick. Once dry, the wood is unstable in service.

At 12% moisture content, the modulus of rupture is 63–89(–110) N/mm², modulus of elasticity 5980–11,170 N/mm², compression parallel to grain 34–48 N/mm², shear 9.5–10 N/mm², Janka side hardness 5115–5510 N and Janka end hardness 7025 N.

The wood is easy to saw. Planing usually gives fair results, but picking-up of grain can be serious, especially on quarter-sawn surfaces. Moulding, boring and mortising give good results. The nailing properties are satisfactory, but pre-boring is recommended. The use of a filler is recommended but not necessary before painting and varnishing. The gluing properties are satisfactory, but bending properties are usually poor. The wood peels and slices well, producing good-quality veneer. It is not durable, being susceptible to attacks by fungi and wood-boring insects, but it is easy to treat with preservatives. The wood dust may cause irritation to the skin.

Triterpenic saponins called ilexosides I–III are reportedly responsible for the improvement of skin complaints. In tests with mice, crude Ilex mitis extracts did not show acute toxicity, and in experiments with guinea pigs the wound-healing cream fanaferol showed no adverse skin reactions. In clinical tests in Madagascar, it was shown that the cream is most efficient on the cicatrisation process in fresh wounds.


Dioecious evergreen shrub or small to medium-sized tree up to 30(–40) m tall; bole straight and cylindrical or short and poorly shaped, up to 100 cm in diameter; bark surface smooth, sometimes becoming slightly warty or fissured, whitish to grey or pale brown; crown fan-shaped; twigs often short-hairy, purplish. Leaves alternate, simple; stipules minute, up to 1 mm long; petiole up to 1 cm long, channelled above; blade elliptical to oblong-elliptical or obovate-elliptical, 2.5–14 cm × 1.5–5 cm, cuneate to obtuse at base, obtuse to acute or short-acuminate at apex, margins entire or sometimes spiny-toothed, leathery, glabrous, dark green, pinnately veined with looping lateral veins. Inflorescence an axillary, few-flowered cyme up to 3 cm long, short-hairy, with peduncle up to 1.5 cm long. Flowers unisexual, regular, (4–) 5–6-merous, sweet-scented; pedicel up to 1(–1.5) cm long; calyx c. 1.5 mm long, lobes rounded to acute, short-hairy at margins; corolla up to 3.5 mm long, white, with short tube; male flowers with stamens inserted on the corolla tube and alternating with lobes, ovary rudimentary; female flowers with rudimentary stamens and superior, globose ovary, stigma sessile. Fruit a globose drupe 4–7 mm in diameter, becoming dark red upon ripening, containing 4–7 stones, each stone 1-seeded. Seeds 2–3 mm long, brownish.

Other botanical information

Ilex comprises about 500 species and is distributed throughout the tropical to temperate regions of the world. Eastern Asia and South America are richest in species. Only Ilex mitis is native to tropical Africa; it appears to be most closely related to Asian species.


Wood-anatomical description (IAWA hardwood codes):

Growth rings: 2: growth ring boundaries indistinct or absent. Vessels: 5: wood diffuse-porous; (12: solitary vessel outline angular); 14: scalariform perforation plates; 17: scalariform perforation plates with 20–40 bars; (18: scalariform perforation plates with 40 bars); 21: intervessel pits opposite; (22: intervessel pits alternate); 25: intervessel pits small (4–7 μm); 26: intervessel pits medium (7–10 μm); 30: vessel-ray pits with distinct borders; similar to intervessel pits in size and shape throughout the ray cell; 36: helical thickenings in vessel elements present; 37: helical thickenings throughout body of vessel element; 41: mean tangential diameter of vessel lumina 50–100 μm; 49: 40–100 vessels per square millimetre. Tracheids and fibres: 62: fibres with distinctly bordered pits; (64: helical thickenings in ground tissue fibres); 66: non-septate fibres present; 69: fibres thin- to thick-walled. Axial parenchyma: 76: axial parenchyma diffuse; 77: axial parenchyma diffuse-in-aggregates; 78: axial parenchyma scanty paratracheal; 93: eight (5–8) cells per parenchyma strand; 94: over eight cells per parenchyma strand. Rays: 98: larger rays commonly 4- to 10-seriate; 99: larger rays commonly > 10-seriate; 102: ray height > 1 mm; 103: rays of two distinct sizes; 106: body ray cells procumbent with one row of upright and/or square marginal cells; 107: body ray cells procumbent with mostly 2–4 rows of upright and/or square marginal cells; 110: sheath cells present; 115: 4–12 rays per mm. Mineral inclusions: (136: prismatic crystals present); (137: prismatic crystals in upright and/or square ray cells); (140: prismatic crystals in chambered upright and/or square ray cells); (141: prismatic crystals in non-chambered axial parenchyma cells).

(C. Essien, P.E. Gasson & E.A. Wheeler)

Growth and development

Trees grow fairly rapidly, with an annual height growth of up to 80 cm. On more dry sites, they develop an extensive root system, the taproot developing first and then the lateral roots, which become compact and massive with age. In southern Africa Ilex mitis usually flowers in September–February and fruits ripen 4–6 months after flowering in female trees. Flowers are visited by insects such as bees and wasps, which are the main pollinators. Fruits are mainly eaten by birds, dispersing the stones.


Ilex mitis occurs in dry evergreen forest, thickets and upland rainforest. In East Africa it is found at 900–3000 m altitude, but near the coast in southern Africa it occurs at nearly sea-level. In West Arica it is restricted to some localities in hill and mountain forest above 350 m altitude. It is often found near rivers and streams. In Ethiopia it occurs in forest at 1500–3000 m altitude, together with Croton, Podocarpus, Juniperus and Hagenia. In Madagascar Ilex mitis is widely distributed in evergreen forest and thickets at (400–)800–2500 m altitude. The annual rainfall in the area of distribution is 750–1500 mm, up to 3000 mm in eastern Madagascar. Ilex mitis prefers fertile and moist but well-drained soils which are slightly acidic. Established trees can tolerate long periods of drought and Ilex mitis is quite frost tolerant.

Propagation and planting

Natural regeneration is often abundant after land clearance, not only resulting from the establishment of seedlings, but also from coppice shoots. Regular fires reduce regeneration considerably. Ilex mitis is usually propagated by seeds (stones), which are collected from the ground and gradually dried in the shade. They can be sown in seed beds with a mixture of equal parts river sand and compost, and should be covered with a thin layer of soil. The germination rate is 30–70%. The seeds start germinating after 8–20 days, although germination may be erratic, and can be transplanted into plastic sleeves when they have two leaves. They grow fast. They can be planted into the field in full sun or semi-shade, but should be protected from livestock and fire. Seedlings generally show a fair survival rate, even under moderately dry conditions. In experimental plantings in South Africa they showed a survival rate of 67%. Propagation by cuttings is possible. In tests in Madagascar, cuttings with 3 nodes and one leaf could be rooted successfully (up to 60%). Cuttings taken from stump sprouts in the hot rainy season gave best results.


Around 1985 Ilex mitis was locally common in forest in Madagascar; in some localities the average density was nearly 40 trees per ha. Once trees are established, little care is needed. They can be pruned, lopped and pollarded.


After felling of the bole, star shakes often develop. Fruits are mostly collected from the ground and stones are separated manually. Plant parts used for medicinal purposes are harvested throughout the year when the need arises. They are used immediately, or dried and stored for later use.


The yield of wood per tree is often limited due to the often short length and poor shape of the bole.

Handling after harvest

The wood is susceptible to staining by fungi, and therefore harvested logs should not be left in the forest for longer periods, or treated with preservatives. After sawing, much of the wood may be lost if not properly dried because of its tendency to distort and collapse, and to blue stain attack.

Genetic resources

There are no indications that Ilex mitis is threatened by genetic erosion; it is widespread and common in many regions, although it occurs only very scattered in West and Central Africa. In some areas the bark is subject to unsustainable exploitation, e.g. in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, in spite of the fact that it is there a protected tree. Systematic germplasm collections and conservation programmes do not seem to exist.


No breeding work has been undertaken yet, but the most important selection criteria for improved timber production would be long and straight boles.


Ilex mitis is a multipurpose tree, not only important for its timber but also as a source of firewood, edible fruits and traditional medicine. Moreover, it has importance in honey production and deserves more attention as an ornamental tree. Little is known about its growth rates and adequate methods of propagation. Research is warranted because Ilex mitis with its multipurpose wood may have prospects as a commercial timber tree in planting programmes. The development of skin care products based on Ilex mitis in Madagascar could have succession elsewhere in tropical Africa. Altogether, Ilex mitis will continue to play an important role for various purposes in tropical Africa and should be promoted for planting in agroforestry programmes, being particularly suitable for mountain regions in tropical Africa.

Major references

  • Bekele-Tesemma, A., 2007. Useful trees and shrubs for Ethiopia: identification, propagation and management for 17 agroclimatic zones. Technical Manual No 6. RELMA in ICRAF Project, Nairobi, Kenya. 552 pp.
  • Bolza, E. & Keating, W.G., 1972. African timbers: the properties, uses and characteristics of 700 species. Division of Building Research, CSIRO, Melbourne, Australia. 710 pp.
  • Chikamai, B.N., Githiomi, J.K., Gachathi, F.N. & Njenga, M.G., undated. Commercial timber resources of Kenya. Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), Nairobi, Kenya. 164 pp.
  • Danthu, P., Ramaroson, N. & Rambeloarisoa, G., 2008. Seasonal dependence of rooting success in cuttings from natural forest trees in Madagascar. Agroforestry Systems 73(1): 47–53.
  • Latham, P., 2007. Plants visited by bees and other useful plants of Umalila, southern Tanzania. Third edition. P.Latham, DFID, United Kingdom. 216 pp.
  • Maundu, P. & Tengnäs, B. (Editors), 2005. Useful trees and shrubs for Kenya. World Agroforestry Centre - East and Central Africa Regional Programme (ICRAF-ECA), Technical Handbook 35, Nairobi, Kenya. 484 pp.
  • Orwa, C., Mutua, A., Kindt, R., Jamnadass, R. & Simons, A., 2009. Agroforestree database: a tree reference and selection guide. Version 4.0. [Internet] World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Nairobi, Kenya. resources/databases/ agroforestree. July 2011.
  • Ramaroson, N., 2006. Essai de propagation végétative de quelques espèces ligneuses productices d’huiles et de molecules à usage médicale. Mémoire de fin d’étude en vue de l’obtention du diplôme d’Ingénieur Agronome, ESSA, Département Eaux et Forêt, Université d’Antananarivo, Madagascar. 42 pp.
  • Randria, J.N., Ranaivo-Harimanana, L. & Rakotomaniraka, H., 1986. Etudes cliniques complémentaires sur le fanaférol. Archives du Centre National de Recherches Pharmaceutiques 5: 71–89.
  • Verdcourt, B., 1968. Aquifoliaceae. In: Milne-Redhead, E. & Polhill, R.M. (Editors). Flora of Tropical East Africa. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. 4 pp.

Other references

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  • Beentje, H.J., 1994. Kenya trees, shrubs and lianas. National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya. 722 pp.
  • Burkill, H.M., 1985. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 1, Families A–D. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 960 pp.
  • Cuenoud, P., Martinez, M.A.D.P., Loizeau, P.A., Spichiger, R., Andrews, S. & Manen, J.F., 2000. Molecular phylogeny and biogeography of the genus Ilex L. (Aquifoliaceae). Annals of Botany 85(1): 111–122.
  • Dale, I.R. & Greenway, P.J., 1961. Kenya trees and shrubs. Buchanan’s Kenya Estates Limited, Nairobi, Kenya. 654 pp.
  • Debray, M., Jacquemin, H. & Razafindrambao, R., 1971. Contribution à l’inventaire des plantes médicinales de Madagascar. Travaux et Documents No 8. ORSTOM, Paris, France. 150 pp.
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  • Katende, A.B., Birnie, A. & Tengnäs, B., 1995. Useful trees and shrubs for Uganda: identification, propagation and management for agricultural and pastoral communities. Technical Handbook 10. Regional Soil Conservation Unit, Nairobi, Kenya. 710 pp.
  • Kokwaro, J.O., 1993. Medicinal plants of East Africa. 2nd Edition. Kenya Literature Bureau, Nairobi, Kenya. 401 pp.
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  • Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
  • Palmer, E. & Pitman, N., 1972–1974. Trees of southern Africa, covering all known indigenous species in the Republic of South Africa, South-West Africa, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. 3 volumes. Balkema, Cape Town, South Africa. 2235 pp.
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Sources of illustration

  • Robyns, A., 1960. Aquifoliaceae. In: Robyns, W., Staner, P., Demaret, F., Germain, R., Gilbert, G., Hauman, L., Homès, M., Jurion, F., Lebrun, J., Vanden Abeele, M. & Boutique, R. (Editors). Flore du Congo belge et du Ruanda-Urundi. Spermatophytes. Volume 9. Institut National pour l’Étude Agronomique du Congo belge, Brussels, Belgium. pp. 109–112.


  • A. Maroyi, Department of Biodiversity, School of Molecular and Life Sciences, University of Limpopo, Private Bag X 1106, Sovenga 0727, South Africa

Correct citation of this article

Maroyi, A., 2012. Ilex mitis (L.) Radlk. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Lemmens, R.H.M.J., Louppe, D. & Oteng-Amoako, A.A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 11 July 2021.