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American Holly Trees and Other Holly Plants

Great Winter Landscaping Choices


Picture of Nellie Stevens, one of the holly trees popular in the South.

Picture of Nellie Stevens holly.

Missouri Botanical Garden

As noted on Page 1, holly plants are a diverse lot, being "one of the few genera that can be grown in all 50 states" in the U.S., as Andrew Bunting, curator of the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College, writes. There are hundreds of species, distributed amongst all the continents except for Australia and Antarctica. The plants come in all sizes, ranging from spreading dwarf shrubs 6" in height to trees 70' tall. Their shapes vary from rounded to pyramidal to columnar.

Landscaping enthusiasts use this versatile plant in a number of different ways. Holly shrubs are attractive in foundation plantings or as borders for gardening plots. Holly trees (such as the Nellie Stevens variety, displayed in the picture) and the taller holly shrubs can be used as privacy screen hedges to screen out traffic or neighbors, or as striking accent plants on a lawn.

An example of an intermediate-sized holly is "Little Red" Holly (Ilex x 'Little Red'). Little Red's dense growth and compact nature (5' x 5') make it useful for privacy screen hedges in areas where taller hedges are not desirable. This evergreen produces attractive red berries and has a moderate growth rate. Little Red can be grown in full sun or partial shade, and it likes well-drained soil with an acidic pH. Cold hardy to zone 6. As broadleaf evergreens, hollies make ideal privacy screens around pools -- no leaves or needles to clean up.

Holly trees and shrubs are sometimes deciduous, but more often evergreen. One holly that is deciduous is winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata). Another characteristic that sets winterberry holly apart from the hollies with which we are most familiar is its tolerance of a variety of growing conditions. For, while most holly cultivars require well-drained soil, winterberry holly will perform just fine in either well-drained soil or wet soil. Winterberry holly loses its foliage before Christmas, but its nakedness is a landscaping virtue, not a vice: with no leaves to obstruct the view, the red berries for which we grow the plant take center stage.

The hollies with which we are most familiar, due to their striking evergreen foliage used in Christmas displays, are English holly (Ilex aquifolium) and American holly (Ilex opaca). Some varieties of English holly plants grow quite tall, so be careful what you buy. Ilex aquifolium 'Ferox Argentea' reaches the moderate height of 15', with a spread of 8'-10'. It grows in zones 6-9.

American holly plants are native to the Southeastern U.S. and most of the U.S. states on the Atlantic Coast. The USDA Forest Service, establishing the northern terminus of American holly plant's range, remarks that the Pilgrims noted Ilex opaca was present in Massachusetts when they landed in 1620. An example of American holly plants is Ilex opaca 'Mac's Prince,' zones 5-9. It reaches a height of 15'-30', with a spread of 10'-20'.

All holly trees and shrubs are dioecious, as I discuss in greater detail in my article on Blue Princess holly. Landscapers need to plant a male plant within 30'- 40' of females in order for the latter to yield berries. Hollies prefer to grow in acidic soils, which is why in nature they do so well in oak forests (the "Oak King" and "Holly King," discussed on the prior page, have more in common than just their eternal war with one another). Holly trees and shrubs, depending on the variety, can be grown in zones 3-11. Check with a local nursery for the cultivar(s) suited to your area.

To give your holly a shape of your own choosing, prune back the tips of the current season's growth in late autumn or winter. If you have an old holly plant on your landscape which you wish to rejuvenate, Bunting presents a tip on pruning holly shrubs, as follows (in his helpful article, Bunting also lists a number of the best holly cultivars for landscaping):

For rejuvenation pruning on holly, Bunting recommends a method called "hat racking." Specifically, he advises that you trim back branches by 1/2 to 3/4 toward the end of winter. The reason the method is named "hat racking," according to Bunting, is that what you're left with after this cutting will have such sparse foliage that it will resemble a hat rack. When spring arrives, however, the plant will begin to fill in again with leaves; in two to three years, the plant will be covered in leaves once more. "Hat racking," concludes Bunting, "will result in a plant much reduced in size, but still full of foliage."

Holly is prized in Christmas decorations, and adds visual interest to a color-starved northern landscape. But Botanical.com also reports medicinal uses for holly. Herbalists traditionally used holly leaves to treat fever and other ailments. "The berries possess totally different qualities to [sic] the leaves, being violently emetic and purgative, a very few occasioning excessive vomiting soon after they are swallowed."

Bird watchers take note: several bird species are attracted to holly shrubs, including thrushes and blackbirds. According to the USDA Forest Service, holly shrubs are also consumed in winter by the following species:

  • wild turkeys
  • cedar waxwings
  • mourning doves
  • goldfinches
  • bobwhites

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How to Prune Shrubs
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