The gorgeous and glossy Holly has been a landscaping backbone for centuries! With their unique leaf shapes, dainty little white blooms, and their incredibly showy berries in the fall, it’s no wonder they’ve inspired folklore and superstition, and have embedded themselves in our Holiday traditions so seamlessly!
But did you know there were so many types of Holly?
Botanically known as Ilex, Holly is a vast genus of about 400 species! All have gorgeous foliage, pollinator-friendly white or greenish flowers, and colorful berries to further enhance their unique foliage and dependable growth!
Check out the many different types of Holly and what they bring to the landscape!
The great American Holly (Ilex opaca) is native to North America. Typically very large trees and shrubs, the American Holly features white spring blooms and the female plants produce glossy brilliant red berries for fall and winter interest! Growing very large - upwards of 50 feet in height or more, American Holly features spiny, pointed lobes like the Red Oak leaf shape. The very kind you think of when picturing a Holly!
Able to be sheared and shaped, American Holly are often used as impressive privacy hedges for when you need to block the view from not just eye level, but also from 3, 4, and even 5-story windows (in time)! Just give these large-scale broadleaved evergreens some space, or prune them more narrow as needed. Or create unique Holly Trees by removing their lower limbs and exposing the single-stem or multi-trunked stems.
Another type of native Holly is the American Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata). Also known as the Michigan Holly, or Canada Holly, Winterberry Holly are native deciduous Holly. The female shrubs display brilliant red, orange, or even yellow-colored berries for fall and winter interest! Both male and female shrubs have inconspicuous green-to-white flowers that the pollinators love, even if you won’t see them. The leaves lack the spines of the American Holly, but are still a gorgeous glossy green throughout the growing season.
A great deciduous shrub that tolerates lowland areas where it grows natively. Typically occurring in swamps, damp thickets, low woods, and along ponds and streams, Winterberry looks great in your Rain Garden or in locations that can have more than moist soil!
Male Winterberry Holly like Southern Gentleman look great on their own as landscaping workhorses, plus a single male shrub pollinates up to 10 female Winterberry plants, such as Winter Red or Sparkleberry. Try an orange-fruited Little Goblin® Orange Winterberry Holly and its male pollinator little Goblin® Guy. You’ll love the dark green leaves of Winter Red Holly or the light green leaves of the Berry Heavy® Winterberry Holly.
Inkberry Holly (Ilex glabra) are another native American southern and coastal species with dark black berries. The long, slender leaves only have small teeth at the tips of each leaf, and have a leathery texture. The leaves are green and glossy resembling a Boxwood and have no spines, so try them as a native alternative to Boxwood that features every bit as much elegance.
Typically broadleaf evergreens, Inkberry are also known as Appalachian Tea (Indigenous Americans used the dried leaves as tea), and Gallberry. They earned their name because Civil War soldiers wrote home using the fruit as homespun ink. These are another great native plant that loves a slightly acidic soil, medium to wet soils, and full sun to part shade. Adaptable to both light and heavy soils, and even tolerates wet soils well!
Try a Shamrock, Gem Box® or Densa, for compact low-growing and space-saving hedges, edging, and facer plants! Inkberry also features separate male and female shrubs like Winterberry and will need at least one male shrub to pollinate up to 10 female shrubs.
Another American native Holly is the Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria). Also found in the southeastern US, these dioecious shrubs have ornamental gray bark and broadleaf evergreen foliage. While not as showy or fast-growing as typical Holly, the leaves are also not spiny, and the red berries look fantastic in holiday decorations.
They earned their scientific name because the leaves do contain some caffeine and were prepared as tea by Indigenous Americans. When mixed with other ingredients, the tea induced vomiting for ceremonial reasons, but this was not caused by the Yaupon leaf itself. In fact, Yaupon Tea is still consumed safely today and is similar to the South American Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis), and has antioxidants that may reduce inflammation and have a role in preventing chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
What is the difference between English Holly and American Holly? By and large, English Holly (Ilex aquifolium) are typically smaller than American Holly but have few other differences other than where they grow natively. English Holly features the same marvelously distinctive, toothed green leaves on a broadleaf evergreen shrub and pollinator-friendly small white flowers in the spring.
Sprinkle some of the bell-shaped blooms on top of a pool of water to see if the old wives' tale is true - It's said that springtime Holly flowers turn water to ice! Like many English plants, Holly has more than its fair share of legends and folklore. After all, this is the showy evergreen that develops the celebrated red berries. Deck your halls at Christmastime with wreaths and garlands. Or leave the berries on the bush to feed the songbirds in your area after a few freeze-and-thaw cycles.
Also known as Box Leaved, Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata) have Boxwood-like leaves that usually do not have spines and are smaller than English and American Holly (both smaller leaves and smaller in size!). Like Inkberry, Japanese Holly are dioecious plants with separate male and female shrubs that must be planted close together for the black berries to form.
It features wavy, spineless, smaller (almost oval) foliage instead of the pointed lobes of more ‘traditional’ Holly. The finer texture lends itself to shearing and shaping like Boxwood too! The glossy leaves create lush privacy and many slender, more columnar forms of Japanese Holly are ideal as hedges and space-saving borders, backdrops, and property definition!
Try varieties such as Sky Pencil, and First Editions® Straight & Narrow® Japanese Holly for small-footprint landscape workhorses! There are also more foliage colors available in the Japanese Holly family including yellow-leafed forms like Drops Of Gold Japanese Holly!
Similar to Japanese Holly, Chinese Holly (Ilex cornuta) are also broadleaf evergreens, these densely packed shrubs are naturally compact and can be kept as tidy shrubs or small trees. These natives to China and Korea have naturalized in parts of the Southeastern US.
The tiny white blooms attract pollinators and if a male shrub is nearby, female shrubs show off a few bright red fruit for birds. Favorites at Nature Hills include the Carissa Holly, and the fine-textured Needlepoint Holly.
Blue Holly (Ilex x meserveae) are also known as Meserve Holly, have a wide range of shiny leaf forms in a soothing blue-green, plus brilliantly hued fruit on female plants. Like Winterberry Holly, Meserve Holly needs a male pollinator to pollinate the female plants in the area for a good fruit set. Even if only growing the male plants, they are very handsome with their glossy broadleaved evergreen foliage all year round all on their own.
Try pairs like Castle Wall® with Castle Spire®, the Blue Prince and Blue Princess Holly pairs, or the China Girl® and China Boy® Holly. Or splash out with the creamy two-tone variegated foliage of Honey Maid Holly!
Also known as Oakleaf® or Red Holly, these hybrids are taller, often pyramidal-shaped Holly with typical Holly-leaf-shaped, deeply dissected, spiny leaves. Featuring glossy broadleaf evergreen foliage, but also orange-to-red berries in the fall!
Red Holly are different from their cousins as there is no need for a pollinator shrub planted nearby to get the fruit! However, as with any pollination situation - the more the merrier - literally. You’ll get a bigger fruit set with multiple plants in proximity to each other to help spread the pollen around.
Try an Oakleaf® Red Holly or Acadiana™ Holly for impressive barrier plantings and fast-growing living deterrent hedges. Very adaptable to shearing and shaping, you can create unique topiary for your containers and garden conversation pieces!
Foster’s Holly (Ilex x attenuata) is another type of Hybrid Holly that is generally self-pollinating and boasts Dahoon and American Holly parentage.
Another fantastic American native are the bird-friendly powerhouses known as Possomhaw Holly (Ilex decidua). Brilliant red berries and ornately toothy, oval leaves of this deciduous Holly are not only beneficial for songbirds, but also a pollinator Host Plant for many butterfly larvae too. Wildlife devours the fruit as quickly as songbirds do, but if you can steal a few branches, your interior and exterior holiday containers will benefit from the bright red fruit on bare stems.
While this shrub may seem a bit old-fashioned, there is a good reason why it was once a landscape standard! With all the new varieties out there, the magnificent Holly is sure to make a return to the American garden once again!
Easy to grow, long-lived, and oh-so-versatile, the Holly bush or tree will inspire you to sing their praises as so many have before you have because of their steadfast beauty!