Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 587 Ilex opaca

Common Names: American holly Family: Aquifoliaceae (holly Family)
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American holly tree
A stately American holly surveys a snowy scene in southern Ohio.


Most of us have seen holly leaves and berries in Christmas decorations. The tree from which those pretty wreaths are made, American holly, is evergreen, rarely more than 50 ft (15.2 m) tall, with light gray bark, short, crooked branches and a pyramid-shaped crown. The oval leaves are shiny dark green, 2-4 in (5.1-10.2 cm) long, rather stiff, and armed with sharp spines. The flowers are tiny with 4-6 creamy-white petals; the male flowers in clusters of 3-9, and the female flowers (on separate trees) in clusters of 1-3. The berries (actually drupes: each seed within the fruit is encased in a stone-like covering) are red (occasionally orange or yellow), about 1/3 in (0.8 cm) in diameter and persist into the winter until hungry songbirds find them. American holly is a very popular ornamental tree and there are more than 1000 named cultivars.

holly on stamp
American holly decorates a United States postage stamp.


American holly occurs naturally in southeastern North America from Massachusetts to Florida and west to eastern Texas and southeastern Missouri. It often grows with magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ), red oak (Quercus rubra), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), red maple (Acer rubrum) and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) in rich bottomland forests or on wooded hillsides above creeks.


American holly does best in acidic, well-drained soils with plenty of organic matter. It needs no pruning and is pest-free except for occasional leaf miners which do little harm. Light: Sun or partial shade. Moisture: American holly is tolerant of drought. Hardiness: USDA Zones 5 - 9. Propagation: The species can be propagated by seeds, but they require extensive pre-treatment to bring them out of dormancy. Germination normally takes from 16 months to 3 years! Fortunately, holly is fairly easy to start from cuttings, and of course, the named cultivars must be started from cuttings. Best results come from semi-hard twig tips taken in summer or early autumn.
holly berries
American holly berries brighten the snowy landscape and provide wintertime food for birds and wildlife.


American holly is usually used as a specimen tree or in small groupings. Since it is dioecious (takes two to tango), it's necessary to plant male and female trees to get berries. One male is enough for several females. American holly is slow-growing, but long-lived. The stately American holly is at its best as a group of evergreen pyramids near the back of the landscape.


The ancient Romans used holly in their winter Saturnalia festivals. When early Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus in December, they too "decked the halls with boughs of holly" to avoid attracting unwanted attention. As the population of Christians grew, holly lost its pagan association and became a symbol of the Christmas season and has even been featured on United States postage stamps. The berries of American holly are eaten by more than 20 species of songbirds and are a significant source of food for wintering cedar waxwings, robins, catbirds, and mockingbirds. Additionally, the dense evergreen foliage provides protective shelter all year round. Handles, fixtures, small tools etc. are made from the ivory-white, close-grained, shock-resistant wood.


Even evergreen trees drop their leaves (just not all at once) and holly leaves, with their sharp spines, hurt underfoot, so don't put a holly where people might walk barefoot under it.

Steve Christman 11/14/99; updated 01/03/01, 11/26/03, 03/21/08

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Ilex species profiled on Floridata:

Ilex 'Mary Nell'

( Mary Nell holly, Mary Nelle holly )

Ilex cassine

( Dahoon holly )

Ilex crenata

( Japanese holly,box-leaved holly,boxleaf holly )

Ilex decidua

( possumhaw, possum haw )

Ilex glabra

( gallberry, inkberry, bitter gallberry, evergreen winterberry, inkberry holly, Appalachian tea )

Ilex myrtifolia

( myrtleleaf holly, myrtle holly, myrtle dahoon, myrtleleaf dahoon )

Ilex opaca

( American holly )

Ilex verticillata

( common winterberry, black alder, coralberry, Michigan holly )

Ilex vomitoria

( yaupon, yaupon holly )

Ilex x 'Nellie R. Stevens'

( Nellie Stevens holly )

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