Purdue Consumer Horticulture Logo

Purdue University
Consumer Horticulture

Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture

Holly (Ilex)

By Mary Welch-Keesey, Purdue University Consumer Horticulture Specialist, and Martha Bailey, volunteer, at White River Gardens

Ilex is a genus of trees and shrubs occurring worldwide, especially in tropical and temperate parts of Asia and North and South America. It is composed of 30 deciduous species and greater than 750 evergreen species. The best known are two evergreen hollies with red berries and spiny leaves - Ilex aquifolium, native to Europe (English holly) and Ilex opaca, native to the Eastern United States (American holly).

Many legends have grown up around these two plants. The custom of decorating dwelling places with evergreen holly derives from the Druid belief that woodland spirits would take refuge from the rigors of winter in the holly branches. In Christian England, holly (believed by some to be a corruption of the word holy) was used to decorate churches, houses and market places at Christmas. Native Americans painted or embroidered sprays of holly on their shields and jackets. The spiny leaves symbolized the fierceness of the warriors. The toughness of the wood indicated they would never submit to their enemies. Holly symbolized defense and was often planted around the Indians' cabins to keep away evil spirits.

Landscape Interest and Usage

Holly leaves may have spined, toothed, or smooth margins and are usually simple and alternate. Flowers appear from spring to early summer, are usually white or cream and do not add significant interest to this plant. Hollies are dioecious, that is the male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. The female plants bear fruit in autumn but only if a male is nearby to serve as pollinator. The red or black, occasionally white, orange, or yellow BERRIES are spherical, sometimes ellipsoid, and MAY CAUSE A MILD STOMACH UPSET IF THEY ARE EATEN.

Hollies are best used where their year-round interest can be appreciated. Smaller shrub hollies can be used as hedges and foundation plantings. Taller hollies can be used as screens or as specimen trees. They respond well to pruning. If berries are desired, a male of the same species must be planted nearby to serve as pollinator.


Evergreen hollies should always be purchased with earth balls around their roots, never with bare roots. However, deciduous hollies may be moved in either the spring or fall and with bare roots. It is best to plant or transplant early in the spring. Sometimes, when transplanted in the fall, they drop all their leaves. Usually these grow again in the spring, but sometimes the plants simply die during the winter.

Hollies should be grown in moist but well drained, moderately fertile, humus-rich soil in full sun or in partial shade. Hollies prosper when soil pH is between 5.5 and 7.0. Light shade protects the evergreen hollies from winter burn.


Sow the seed in containers in a cold frame in the autumn. Germination may take 2 or 3 years. Take the semi-ripe cuttings in the spring.

Hollies For Your Garden


This holly is considered the Christmas holly. It is an erect, evergreen, large shrub or tree with oblong-elliptic, spine-toothed or entire, leathery, dark green leaves which are 2 to 4 inches long. It bears crimson or occasionally yellow or orange fruit 1/4 inch across. Height: 9 ft in 18 yrs, 36 ft in 80 yrs. USDA zones 6a-9a.

INKBERRY I. glabra

This is an upright, much-branched, rounded evergreen shrub. Leaves are dark green and often lustrous with smooth edges and a few teeth at the tip, up to 2 inches in length. Berries are black, often hidden by foliage and are held through the winter. Some white-fruited cultivars are available. Height: 6-8 ft. USDA zones 5a-9a.

CHINA BOY and CHINA GIRL HOLLY Ilex x meserveae 'China Boy', 'China Girl'

This is a compact, upright, rounded shrub . The leaves are moderate olive green and have 2-3 prominent spines on each side of the leaves. 'China Girl' produces vivid reddish-orange fruit; 'China Boy' serves as the pollinator. Height: 2-3 ft in 8 yrs, 6-7 ft in 20 yrs if not pruned. USDA zones 5a-8a.

WINTERBERRY I. verticillata

This is a rounded, tall shrub which tends to sucker. The deciduous leaves have finely toothed margins. The berries are usually red, persisting into January, dependent on the bird population. 'Winter Red' is one of the best cultivars for fruit color, abundance and persistence. All cultivars of this species are extremely hardy. Height: 6-9 ft. USDA zones 4a &endash; 9a.

ENGLISH HOLLY I. aquifolium

This species is hardy only to zone 7 so it cannot be grown in Indiana. The best specimens are seen in mild coastal climates including the Pacific Northwest coast and Long Island, New York.



Last updated: 6 April, 2006
For questions on this article, please contact Mary Welch-Keesey (mwelch@indyzoo.com).
Questions about this site should be sent to homehort@purdue.edu

The URL for this page is http://www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/WRG_holly.html