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Berries of many kinds poisonous.

Ilex

Holly
Aquifoliaceae
Deciduous, Evergreen, Shrubs, Trees

Many hundreds of species and hybrids exist. Smaller kinds are attractive as foundation plantings or low hedges; larger evergreen sorts make attractive and impenetrable tall hedges or screens. In size, they range from foot-high dwarfs to trees 40–50 ft. tall. 

Nearly all holly plants are either male or female, and as a rule both sexes must be present in order for female plants to set fruit. Best bet is to plant a male of the same species as the fruiting females; if you use a different species, berries will form only if both plants flower at the same time. 

Most hollies prefer rich, slightly acid garden soil with good water drainage. (A few exceptions are noted.) All appreciate a mulch to deter weeds and keep soil cool and moist. Though plants will grow in sun or part shade, choose a sunny spot for best berry production and most compact growth. Scale can cause problems in all holly-growing areas. Holly bud moth and leaf miner need attention on English holly in the Northwest; for control, employ only products currently registered for use against those pests. Diseases are rarely a problem for home gardeners.

Most hollies tend to be dense and symmetrical. Prune mainly to remove poorly placed, broken, or dead branches. Winter holiday season is a good time to prune, because clipped branches can be used for indoor decoration. You can restore a holly that has become too open or ragged by severely shortening its branches and allowing new growth to fill in. Small-leafed hollies can be sheared into formal hedges or topiary figures.

Ilex aquifolium
Ilex aquifolium

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Ilex aquifolium

Evergreen shrub or tree native to southern and central Europe and Great Britain. Slow growth to 40 ft. tall and 25 ft. wide, usually much less. Highly variable in leaf shape, color, and degree of spininess. Some varieties produce seedless berries without a pollenizer, but these berries are usually small, slow to develop, and quick to drop. In the Northwest, where this holly is invasive, we recommend only male or seedless female varieties. Give partial shade where hot. Resistant to oak root fungus.

‘Big Bull’: Very ornamental male with large, nearly smooth-edged leaves.

‘Ferox’: Male with sterile pollen. Twisted, fiercely spined leaves are what give it its common names (Hedgehog, Porcupine Holly).

‘San Gabriel’: Bears seedless berries without pollination.

Variegated varieties are available with silver-edged leaves (‘Argentea Marginata’ and ‘Ferox Argentea’), gold-edged leaves (‘Aurea Marginata’ and ‘Gold Coast’, a 6–8-ft.-tall male), and gold-centered leaves (‘Britebush’ and ‘Pinto’).

Ilex cornuta

From China and Korea. Evergreen shrub or tree that needs a long warm season to set fruit. In desert climates, give protection from hot sun; grow in eastern or northern exposure. Dense or open growth to 10 ft. or taller, often wider in maturity. Leaves are typically glossy, leathery, nearly rectangular, with spines at the four corners and at tip. Exceptionally large, long-lasting bright red berries. Selections show great variation in fruit set, leaf form, spininess. In the following list, those setting fruit do so without a male variety.

‘Burfordii’ (Burford Holly): Grows to 15 ft. tall and 10 ft. wide. Widely planted in low-elevation California. Leaves are nearly spineless, cupped downward. Useful as an espalier.

‘Carissa’: Dwarf, dense grower to 3–4 ft. high and 4–6 ft. wide, with small leaves. Use for small containers or as a low hedge. Female, but no berries.

‘Dwarf Burford’ (‘Burfordii Nana’): Resembles ‘Burfordii’ but is much smaller—to just 6 ft. tall and wide. Branches are densely set with small, light green, spineless leaves.

‘Needlepoint’: Grows to 10 ft. tall and 12 ft. wide, with narrow, twisted leaves and bright red berries.

Ilex crenata (photo courtesy of Proven Winners)
Ilex crenata (photo courtesy of Proven Winners)

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Ilex crenata

Evergreen shrub from Russia, Japan, and Korea. Looks more like boxwood (Buxus) than holly. Dense, erect, usually to 4–10 ft. tall and wide, sometimes much larger. Narrow, finely toothed, 1/2–1-in.-long leaves. Black berries. Extremely useful where winter cold limits the choice of polished evergreens for hedges and edgings. Varieties include the following.

‘Compacta’: Rounded shrub to 6 ft. tall and wide, with dense habit. Many different plants are sold under this name.

‘Convexa’: Compact, rounded shrub grows to 4–6 ft. tall and somewhat wider. Leaves are roundish, cupped downward at the edges. Use as a clipped or unclipped hedge. Many different plants are sold under this name.

‘Drops of Gold’: Grows to 3 ft. high and 6 ft. wide; yellow outer leaves and green inner leaves.

‘Helleri’: Remains very small (about 1 ft. high and 2 ft. wide) for many years. May reach twice that size in 30 years.

‘Sky Pencil’: Columnar plant to 6 ft. tall and only 10 in. wide.

Ilex glabra ‘Shamrock’ (photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.)
Ilex glabra ‘Shamrock’ (photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.)

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Ilex glabra

Evergreen shrub native to eastern North America. Grows to 10 ft. tall and wide, with thick, spineless dark green leaves and black berries. More widely available are the dwarf forms ‘Compacta’ (female) and ‘Nordic’ (male), which grow to 4 ft. tall and wide but can be sheared to make a 2-ft. hedge. ‘Shamrock’ grows to 5 ft. tall and wide, with fine-textured, compact growth and black berries.

Ilex opaca

Slow growing to 40–50 ft. tall and 20–40 ft. wide; pyramidal or round-headed. Dull or glossy green, 2–4-in.-long leaves with spiny margins. Red berries; not quite as numerous as on I. aquifolium. Resistant to oak root fungus.

Ilex verticillata ‘Berry Nice’ (photo courtesy of Proven Winners)
Ilex verticillata ‘Berry Nice’ (photo courtesy of Proven Winners)

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Ilex verticillata

This deciduous shrub is native to eastern North America. Unlike most hollies, it will thrive in boggy soils, although it also succeeds in any moist, organic soil. Grows 6–10 ft. tall and spreads wider by suckering. Oval leaves. Enormous crop of bright red berries ripens in early fall and lasts all winter (unless eaten by birds). ‘Afterglow’ has orange-red berries on a globe-shaped plant. ‘Berry Heavy’ and ‘Berry Nice’, both to 8 ft. tall and wide, are especially heavy producers of red berries. ‘Winter Red’ has dark red berries. ‘Red Sprite’ is a dwarf (to 3 ft. high and wide) with larger red fruit. Plant a male variety such as ‘Jim Dandy’ (to 4 ft.) or ‘Southern Gentleman’ (to 6 ft.) for pollination.

Ilex vomitoria ‘Stokes’ (photo courtesy of Monrovia)
Ilex vomitoria ‘Stokes’ (photo courtesy of Monrovia)

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Ilex vomitoria

Evergreen shrub or tree that is native to the southeastern U.S. Takes extremely alkaline soils better than other hollies. Grows to 15–20 ft. tall and 10–15 ft. wide, with narrow, inch-long, shallowly toothed dark green leaves. Often trained as a standard or sheared into columnar form; good topiary plant. Pea-size scarlet berries borne in profusion.

‘Nana’ (Dwarf Yaupon): Grows to 3–5 ft. tall and slightly wider. Refined, attractive; formal appearance when sheared. Fruit is often hidden among the leaves.

‘Pendula’: Weeping branches show to best effect when the plant is trained as a standard. Male and female forms available.

‘Stokes’ (‘Stokes Dwarf’, ‘Schillings’): Grows to 3–4 ft. tall and wide, with closely set dark green leaves. Male.

Ilex x meserveae ‘Castle Wall’ (photo courtesy of Proven Winners)
Ilex x meserveae ‘Castle Wall’ (photo courtesy of Proven Winners)

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Ilex x meserveae

Evergreen shrub. Most plants in this category are hybrids between I. aquifolium and a cold-tolerant species from northern Japan. Dense, bushy plants; apparently the hardiest of hollies with the true holly look. Grows to 10 ft. tall and wide, though is more commonly seen 3–5 ft. tall and broad. Purple stems and spiny, glossy blue-green leaves. Red-fruiting female varieties include ‘Blue Girl’ and ‘Blue Princess’; male pollenizers include ‘Blue Boy’ and ‘Blue Prince’. ‘Golden Girl’ has yellow berries. ‘Castle Wall’ is a columnar variety that can reach 8 ft. tall and 4 ft. wide, with shiny dark green leaves and red berries. ‘China Boy’ and red-fruited ‘China Girl’ are crosses between I. cornuta and the northern Japanese species; slightly hardier and more tolerant of summer heat than the other hybrids.

Ilex ‘Ebony Magic’

Pyramidal form. Typically grows to 8–12 ft. tall and 6–8 ft.wide, though it may reach 20 ft. tall and half as wide. Blackish purple bark; shiny dark green, spiny-edged leaves. Large orange-red berries last through spring. ‘Ebony Male’ is often used for pollination.

Ilex ‘Ebony Male’

This male variety pollinates the female ‘Ebony Magic’. Grows to 8–12 ft. tall and 6–8 ft. wide.

Ilex ‘Little Rascal’

Evergreen shrub with dense rounded, compact growth to just 2 ft. tall and 3 ft. wide. Medium green leaves turn deep purple in winter. Male.

Ilex ‘Nellie R. Stevens’

Evergreen shrub or tree is a hybrid between I. cornuta and I. aquifolium. Fast growing, densely conical to 15–20 ft. tall and 10 ft. wide. Glossy, leathery, sparsely toothed leaves to 3 in. long. Self-fruitful, but forms a heavier crop if pollinated by a male variety of I. cornuta.

Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’ (photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.)
Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’ (photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.)

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Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’

Deciduous shrub or tree is a hybrid between I. serrata and I. verticillata. Upright growth to 12–15 ft. high and wide. Tooth-edged dark green leaves to 4 in. long persist until early winter before dropping. Masses of bright red berries last from fall into spring.

‘Wilsonii’

Hybrid between I. aquifolium and a species from the Canary Islands. One of the best hollies, especially in warmer regions. Takes wind and almost any soil. Usually a shrub to 6–8 ft. high and wide, but easily trained as a single-stemmed tree to 15–20 ft. high and 10–12 ft. wide.

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