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Grow for Year-Round Color

Natural beauty is evergreen

Jan/Feb 2023

Leaves stay green year-round on American holly.

by Steve Carroll, Contributing Columnist

Mention to friends that you’ve planted an evergreen tree in your yard, and most will assume you’ve added a pine, arborvitae, or a related conifer. But there are also evergreen flowering trees, and in our region, the native American holly is one of the most popular.

Identifying holly is a simple matter based on its leaves and fruits.

American holly (scientific name, Ilex opaca) grows naturally along the coast from Massachusetts to central Florida, and inland to southeast Missouri and east Texas (USDA Cold Hardiness Zones 5-9). It does best in moist, acidic soil. Holly tolerates shady and sunny sites salt and air pollution, but it is easily damaged or killed by fire.

Identifying holly is a simple matter based on its leaves and fruits. The leathery, evergreen leaves are two to four inches long with prominent spines along the edges. The fruits, usually red, occasionally orange, or yellow, are a quarter to a half-inch in diameter. They ripen in the fall and often persist through winter. The small white flowers form in the spring, with male and female flowers on different trees. To have fruits, you need at least one female tree (to produce the berries) and one nearby male tree (to serve as a pollen source). Bees, wasps, ants and moths serve as pollinators.

Holly’s red fruits persist into winter.

Given its dense evergreen foliage, trees provide good cover for birds. The berries are eaten by cedar waxwings, goldfinches, mockingbirds, catbirds, blackbirds and others. There is disagreement about whether the leaves and berries are poisonous to people and pets, so best to err on the side of caution.

The distinctive leaves and berries not only identify this tree, but are also the reason for its widespread use in winter and holiday decorations. Bear in mind, though, that harvesting from private property and most public land is illegal or requires permission.

American holly can reach up to 70 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet in diameter. It is planted not only as a specimen tree but also in groupings and as a hedge or screen. Holly prunes well, but it is not easily transplanted. More than 1,000 holly cultivars have been bred, so there is one for virtually any horticultural need.

Male, pollen-bearing flowers of American holly.

One of the area’s best-known holly plantings is in the East Garden of the White House. Designed by the late Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon, of Middleburg, Va., this garden features topiary hollies inspired by Alice in Wonderland, an idea prompted by Jackie Kennedy’s comment that she’d like there to be room in the garden for croquet. This garden was later named the Jaqueline Kennedy Garden by Lady Bird Johnson. There are also many specimens on view at the U.S. National Arboretum as part of its Holly and Magnolia Collection.

Holly’s light-colored wood is not extensively used commercially, but it is tapped for cabinet inlays, whip handles, novelties and woodcuts. When dyed black, it has been used for piano keys in place of the more expensive ebony.

For a tree that is attractive, distinctive and green year-round; that gives color and texture to properties large and small; and that provides food and cover for wildlife, it’s hard to beat American holly.

Steve Carroll is a botanist and ecologist who speaks and writes about trees, gardening and the world of plants. He is the co-author of “Ecology for Gardeners,” published by Timber Press.