Sunday, December 21, 2014

American Holly

American holly (Ilex opaca) is a beautiful tree that I have had a hard time locating. I have longed to find a good fruiting specimen for years. I have occasionally found plants in the wild but they are either too young, fruiting only sparsely or not fruiting at all. This past month I finally found one and it is so beautiful.

Berries just turning color
Fully ripe

Hollies are dioecious which means that plants usually have either male or female flowers but not both. Therefore, only trees with female flowers will bear fruit. I had to find not only a tree that was mature enough to flower but also one that was female and had a male nearby for pollination.

Even that didn’t seem too hard except that, in landscaped areas, the straight species American holly seems to be rarely planted. The way more popular (and probably available) choice is to plant one of the American holly-dahoon holly hybrids (Ilex opaca hybridized with Ilex cassine = Ilex x attenuata). These hybrids have fewer prickles on the leaves and fruit very heavily. You may have seen them sold as ‘Savannah,’ ‘Fosteri’ and ‘East Palatka.’

Ilex x attenuata hybrid

These cultivars can have the pyramidal shape of the American holly, but the leaves are distinctly different. American holly has small spines that evenly cover the leaf margins. The cultivars typically have a spine at the tip and a few others, none of which are very big. You can see where this would be more pleasing to the consumer.

Residential example

Very old Ilex opaca in cemetery

Now that I have found what I have been searching for, you know what happened, right? Within just a month, I found a lot more! This past week I went to Providence Canyon State Park and found Ilex opaca all along the 3 mile loop trail. It was beautiful and there were many individuals with fruit. I also found this beautiful example of bark.

Although most of us appreciate it for foliage and fruit, American holly is appreciated as well for some woodwork. It is a slow growing species with a close-grain wood that is the whitest of any native tree. It has been used for inlay and decorative work, including parts for musical instruments.

If American holly is native to your area, I hope that you will consider planting this unique native tree. Tolerant of many different soils and amounts of light, Ilex opaca is a versatile plant for the landscape.

You’ll also be getting a great plant for wildlife – I've read that as many as 18 different species of birds eat the fruit and of course it is a great plant for shelter. What a winner!


  1. American hollies grow all over on our farm. There are some huge old specimens on the other side of the creek which is our property line.

    We have a (wild American) holly near one of our pastures that is in full sun and fruits very heavily. Unfortunately it fell over during Hurricane Floyd, but has since put up several new leaders.