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12 Species of Holly Trees and Shrubs

Members of the Ilex Genus

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Holly trees and shrubs are classified as Ilex spp. and are the only genus that belongs to the Aquifoliaceae family. They can be deciduous or evergreen and form into trees, shrubs or lianas.

Many (though not all) species have leaves that either feature spiny teeth or serrated edges. Spiny species can serve well in creating privacy barriers.

Almost all holly species are dioecious, meaning that you will need to plant both males and females if you desire fruit. One male plant is able to pollinate a few female plants. They produce drupes (not berries) that are often red, but may come in shades of white, yellow, purple or black. They are at least somewhat toxic if eaten, so consider that face if planting in a spot visited by small children.

If you only have room for one holly plant, there are cultivars that are able to produce fruit without pollination in a process called parthenogensis. One of the most popular parthenogenic cultivars is ‘Nellie R. Stevens’, which resulted from a cross between hybrid between English holly (Ilex aquifolium and Chinese holly(Ilex cornuta).

At first, holly was a part of pagan celebrations in the winter. The Romans used it for Saturnalia. Over time it began to be associated with the Christmas season. The two species most often used for decorations are the American holly (Ilex opaca) and the English holly (Ilex aquifolium).

1. American Holly

Picture of American Holly
Image by Nicholas_T via Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license
  • Latin Name: Ilex opaca
  • Other Common Names: Hummock holly, dune holly, scrub holly
  • Native to: Southern and eastern United States
  • USDA Zones: 5-9
  • Height: 15-60' tall
  • Exposure: Full sun to part shade

American holly is often used as a substitute for English holly (Ilex aquifolium) in Christmas decorations where the latter does not grow well. They are similar in appearance with spiny toothed leaves and an abundance of red berries.

If you only have room for one American holly tree, look for the 'Croonenburg' variety. It is able to pollinate itself because it has male and female flowers on the same plant. If you would prefer yellow fruit, choose 'Canary'. There is also a natural version called f. xanthocarpa.

In 1939, American holly was named as the state tree of Delaware.

2. Carolina Holly

Picture of the Carolina Holly
Image by homeredwardprice via Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution license
  • Latin Name: Ilex ambigua
  • Other Common Names:Possum holly, sand holly, ambiguous winterberry
  • Native to: Southeastern United States
  • USDA Zones: 7-9
  • Height: Usually 15-20' tall
  • Exposure: Full sun to part shade

The Carolina holly is a deciduous species. It can grow well in sandy soils, which makes it easy to see why another common name for this is sand holly. Bright red fruits are produced in the fall, though they tend to fall off easily which removes the potential for winter interest.

3. Chinese Holly

Picture of the Chinese Holly
Image by oshokim via Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license
  • Latin Name: Ilex cornuta
  • Other Common Names: Horned holly
  • Native to: China
  • USDA Zones: 7-9
  • Height: 6-25' tall depending on variety
  • Exposure: Full sun to part shade

The name horned holly comes from the shape of the leaves. On the species plant, two of the spiny lobes stick up and look like horns. This is an excellent choice for a pruned privacy hedge.

4. Common Winterberry

Picture of the common winterberry
Image by Nacho 13 via Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license
  • Latin Name: Ilex verticillata
  • Other Common Names: Coralberry, black alder, Michigan holly, Canada holly, deciduous holly, winterberry holly, deciduous winterberry, fever bush, possumhaw, Virginian winterberry, brook alder, swamp holly, winterberry
  • Native to: Eastern North America
  • USDA Zones: 3-9
  • Height: 6-12' tall
  • Exposure: Full sun to part shade

This deciduous shrub will provide a vibrant pop of color in your winter landscape thanks to the abundance of scarlet berries. It may produce suckers and spread through your yard.

5. English Holly

Picture of English Holly
Image by jacilluch via Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license
  • Latin Name: Ilex aquifolium
  • Other Common Names: Christmas holly, holme, common holly, Oregon holly, European holly, hollin
  • Native to: Europe, Asia and Africa
  • USDA Zones: 7-9
  • Height: 15-50' tall
  • Exposure: Full sun to part shade

When someone mentions holly, especially in conjunction with Christmas, they often mean the English holly. Its familiar shape is the one used to adorn Christmas decorations and inspire songs. This is the type species for holly.

6. Finetooth Holly

Picture of a finetooth holly bonsai
Image by Ryan Somma via Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution license
  • Latin Name: Ilex serrata
  • Other Common Names: Japanese winterberry, deciduous holly
  • Native to: China and Japan
  • USDA Zones: 5-8
  • Height: 6-15' tall
  • Exposure: Full sun to part shade

This is one of the deciduous holly species and handles cold better than some of the other species. If you prefer a cultivar with yellow fruit instead of the more common red ones, choose ‘Leucocarpa’ (which may also have white fruit), 'Sundrops' or ‘Xanthocarpa’.

A cultivar named 'Sparkleberry' with bright red berries is the result of a cross between this species and the common winterberry (Ilex verticillata).

7. Hawaiian Holly

Picture of Hawaiian Holly
Image by D.Eickhoff via Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution license
  • Latin Name: Ilex anomala
  • Other Common Names: ʻAiea, kāwaʻu, kä‘awa‘u, Hawai'i holly
  • Native to: Hawaii
  • USDA Zones: Unknown
  • Height: 30-40' tall
  • Exposure:

As the name suggests, this species of holly is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. Like the inkberry, the fruit are purple-black. The happy face spider (Theridion grallator) likes to live on this plant.

8. Inkberry

Picture of the inkberry
Image by scott.zona via Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution license
  • Latin Name: Ilex glabra
  • Other Common Names: Evergreen winterberry, inkberry holly, dye-leaves, gallberry, Appalachian tea, bitter gallberry
  • Native to: Eastern and south central United States
  • USDA Zones: 5-9
  • Height: 4-8' tall
  • Exposure: Full sun to part shade

Most cultivars of the inkberry produce black fruit on the female plants, though 'Ivory Queen' and 'Leucocarpa' have white fruit. The leaves on this species do not have spines.

9. Japanese Holly

Photo of Japanese holly
Image by wallygrom via Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license
  • Latin Name: Ilex crenata
  • Other Common Names: Box-leaved holly
  • Native to: China, Korea and Japan
  • USDA Zones: 5-8
  • Height: 4-10' tall
  • Exposure: Full sun to part shade

The name box-leaved holly is used because the leaves look like those of boxwood shrubs. This holly species can be used to create topiaries. 'Sky Pencil' is a fastigiate cultivar that can be used to create a living fence.

10. Lusterleaf Holly

Picture of Lusterleaf Holly
Image by wlcutler via Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution license
  • Latin Name: Ilex latifolia
  • Other Common Names: Tarajo holly, tarajo
  • Native to: China and Japan
  • USDA Zones: 7-9
  • Height: 15-25' tall, up to 60' in native locations
  • Exposure: Full sun to part shade

The green leaves on this holly species are indeed lustrous. The berries are not as bright as those on other species, though they still add color during wintertime.

11. Myrtle-Leaved Holly

Picture of the Myrtle-Leaved Holly
Image by homeredwardprice via Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution license
  • Latin Name: Ilex myrtifolia
  • Other Common Names: Dahoon, myrtle dahoon, myrtle holly, myrtleleaf dahoo, myrtleleaf holly
  • Native to: Southeastern United States
  • USDA Zones: 7-10
  • Height: Usually 15-25' tall, but can reach 40'+
  • Exposure: Full sun to part shade

The leaves on this tree are like those of the myrtle (Myrtus communis), inspiring the common and species names. Some botanists consider this to be a variety of the dahoon holly (Ilex cassine.

12. Yaupon Holly

Photo of the Yaupon Holly
Image by homeredwardprice via Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution license
  • Latin Name: Ilex vomitoria
  • Other Common Names: Christmas berry, yaupon, evergreen holly, emetic holly, cassine, cassena, evergreen cassena, cassina or Indian black drink
  • Native to: Southeastern United States
  • USDA Zones: 7-9
  • Height: 4-30' tall
  • Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • Growing profile for the yaupon holly

If you live near a seashore, choose this holly as it tolerates salt well. It also serves as a drought tolerant tree.

The name Indian black drink is used because the berries of this species were used in a ceremonial drink by Native Americans. It would make them vomit, leading to the species name and the moniker of emetic holly.

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