Holly Trees: From Christmas Holly Decorations to Traditional Landscape Specimens
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 9, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
American Holly trees, Ilex opaca, have been major components of formal American landscapes since the 18th century. George Washington planted them along the bowling green at Mount Vernon. They can be used as striking single specimens and planted as tall hedges. The berries are an attractive winter food for songbirds. The evergreen leaves and bright red berries provide welcome color in the landscape during the stark winter months.
American Holly is also known as Christmas Holly. Gathering holly and other greenery has always been part of our family’s Christmas preparations. Along with stringing twinkle lights, baking gingerbread, and decorating the tree, it’s one of those holiday traditions that just gets me whistling “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls!”
The week before my very first Christmas, my parents bundled me up and put me into the backpack carrier. We spent a snowy afternoon traipsing through the woods in our Laurel, MD neighborhood . There were native holly trees all over, so by breaking off a berried twig here and a little branch there, we soon had more than enough to add a touch of festive color to our little apartment.
My mother tried to plant holly trees when we lived in Virginia, but her best efforts were defeated by the stubborn clay of our yard there. We still had holly for the holidays, but we had to forage for it. In Pennsylvania, where winters are too cold for most holly varieties, she was reduced to paying exorbitant prices for tiny scraps.
My husband grew up with hollies in the yard that his mother would clip for Christmas decorations. Although more civilized than our expeditions through the underbrush, her berry gathering lacked that snap of adventure. But she was assured of a ready supply for her lovely holiday arrangements.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, we visited his parents in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The stunning American holly in front of their home was probably planted 80 years ago, when the house was built. When the great oak behind drops its leaves, the holly takes center stage. They planted a screening hedge of Foster and Savannah Holly trees (Ilex x attenuata) along one side of their yard 20 years ago, and just last summer they added several well shaped trees (Ilex cornuta) to finish the back border.
A little pruning of the Foster Holly trees in the side yard gave me a whole grocery bag full of branches laden with brilliant red berries. I’ll not only add these to my evergreen wreath for the front door, I’ll put them up the stairway, over picture frames, on the mantle, and in other unexpected places for a touch of holiday color.
The steady rain we’d had the night before cutting helped the holly greenery stay fresh on the way home. Before working with it, I let it soak further in a tub of water. Spraying cut greens with an anti-transpirant such as Wilt-PrufTM can also keep them looking fresher all through the holidays. Such sprays will also help protect the foliage on holly trees from harsh winter winds.
Holly trees are dioecious, meaning that both male and female trees flower, but only female trees produce fruit. Most people prefer the female trees, but in order to get berries it’s necessary to have a male tree somewhere nearby. Alternately, female trees may have male branches grafted onto them for pollination. An old gardening book on my mother’s shelf even suggests, “during the flowering season, a few branches from the male tree may be hung (in bottles of water) in the tree whose blossoms are to be fertilized.” I can just picture that!
On the advice of a local nurseryman, I planted only female trees and took a “wait and see” attitude. With so many holly trees in the area, he said it was likely that pollination would occur, and indeed my trees had berries the following year. If female trees don’t produce berries within a couple of years, then it’s time to plant a male tree of the same species in your yard. If space is a consideration, the male tree can be pruned to the size of a shrub and tucked into any odd corner.
Many specific cultivars of American holly now exist that have been selected for foliage, size/habit, and berry production. Although spacing requirements may vary with variety, all hollies like fertile, acid soil. Amending the planting hole with peat moss, leaf mold, or compost will get your holly off to a good start. Good drainage is important too, and organic soil amendments help with that also.
Holly trees can be pruned at Christmas or in early spring to shape them as needed. Since I don’t have a use for the trimmings in my Easter decorations, I think I’ll be pruning my trees in December. Although hollies can recover from more drastic “hat rack” pruning, cutting them back so severely isn’t generally recommended. Most specimens seem to find their own natural shapes without much assistance.
PlantFiles includes 26 cultivars of American Holly and 207 other Ilex varieties in its listings. For additional information, check out this American Holly native range map and see this American Forest's article, "The Festive American Holly."
When we moved to Frederick, some of the first trees we planted were American Holly saplings. I’m still very protective of these small trees, but any year now I will no longer be able to resist taking a few small snips of them for holiday centerpieces.
 Youngman, Wilbur H. The Washington Star Garden Book. Washington, DC: The Evening Star Newspaper Inc., 1968. p. 112.
Photographs by Jill M. Nicolaus, 2006 and 2007.