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Berries of many kinds poisonous.


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. 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.

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 fruiting females; if you use a different species, berries will form only if both plants flower at the same time. Varieties described below are female unless otherwise noted. A few are self-fruitful; these also are noted.

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 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

From Great Britain, southern and central Europe. English holly (I. aquifolium) is the most familiar in song and legend (and in Christmas wreaths), but this species thrives mainly in mild parts of the Pacific Northwest, coastal Northern California, and the east; in fact, it has become invasive where it grows the best.

Slow growth to 40 ft. tall and 25 ft. wide, usually much less. Highly variable in leaf shape, color, and degree of spininess.

Ilex cornuta

From China, Korea. 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—but plants need a long warm season to set fruit.

Ilex crenata

From Russia, Japan, Korea. Dense, erect, usually to 4–10 ft. high and wide, sometimes much larger. Narrow, finely toothed, 1/2–3/4 in.-long leaves. Black berries. Extremely useful where winter cold limits choice of polished evergreens for hedges, edgings.

Ilex glabra

This holly grows up to 10 ft. tall and wide, with thick, spineless dark green leaves and black berries.

Ilex opaca

Slow growing to 40–50 ft. tall, 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

Native to Eastern North America. Unlike most kinds of holly, this 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 to 3 in. long. Enormous crop of bright red berries ripens in early fall and lasts all winter (unless eaten by birds).

Ilex vomitoria

Native to Southeastern United States. Grows up to 15–20 ft. tall and 10–15 ft. wide, with narrow, inch-long, shallowly toothed dark green leaves. Often trained as standard or sheared into columnar form; good topiary plant. Pea-size scarlet berries borne in profusion.

Ilex x meserveae

Most plants in this category are hybrids between Ilex 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. high and wide, though more commonly seen 3 to 5 ft. tall and broad. Purple stems and spiny, glossy, blue-green leaves.

'Ebony Magic'

Pyramidal form. Typically grows 8–12 ft. tall and 6–8 ft.wide, though 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.

'Ebony Male'

This male variety pollinates the female 'Ebony Magic'. Grows 8 to 12 ft. tall, 6 to 8 ft. wide.

'Little Rascal'

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

'Nellie R. Stevens'

Hybrid between Ilex cornuta and Ilex aquifolium. Fast growing, densely conical to 15 to 20 ft. tall, 10 ft. wide. Glossy, leathery, sparsely toothed leaves to 3 in. long. Self-fruitful, but forms a heavier crop if pollinated by male variety of Ilex cornuta.


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.


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

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