Nothing says “Christmas” like holly. Those iconic deep-green spiny leaves and clusters of bright-red berries might be featured on almost every greetings-card, but their beauty never tires. In the garden too they are great evergreen bushes all year round, where their dense pyramidal form makes them perfect for specimens, screening or hedges. Both the bush and the traditions surrounding it came from Europe, so it is perhaps no surprise that many of the holly bushes found in gardens are forms of the European holly, Ilex aquifolium. That bush only grows well in a limited part of the country, where it is not too cold in winter, and not too hot and dry in summer. In warmer areas the holly bushes with red berries seen in gardens might be the horned holly, Ilex cornuta, from China, the Lusterleaf holly, Ilex latifolia, another Chinese plant, or most likely hybrid bushes of these and other species.
In this age of concern about invasive plants, and growing native trees, there is obviously increased interest in doing just that with holly bushes too. Some exotic hollies certainly are invasive in some parts of the country, but America does have its own beautiful holly tree. If ‘beauty’ and ‘native plant’ are music to your ears, then the American holly sings the song you want to hear.
5 Great Features of the American Holly Bush
- Grows well in colder zones, where other hollies fail
- Carries abundant crops of bright-red berries
- Natural pyramidal form with little trimming needed
- More drought resistant than many others
- Male varieties fertilize many other types of holly bushes
The American Holly
Travel through the woods that still remain between New York and Oklahoma, or south into Florida, and growing beneath the trees you will find a tree that can reach 50 feet, although usually it will be smaller. Its evergreen leaves are oval, with a row of spines down each side, a little different from the leaves on those greeting cards, but still clearly ‘holly’, and just as lustrous, leathery and green. Taken into a garden situation it grows into a pyramidal tree with branches sweeping the ground until it reaches a considerable size. Glowing among the leaves in fall and early winter will be the unmistakable bright-red berry clusters that we love. This tree was admired by George Washington, and trees planted when he was alive can still be found growing vigorously. This tree is the American holly, Ilex opaca, the only native holly tree that looks like the classic Christmas holly bush.
American holly is evergreen, with an upright form and spreading branches. The leaves are 2 o 4 inches long, and rich, dark-green, with a leathery texture and a glossy upper surface. They are oval, with a row of spines down both sides. In time a thick trunk will develop, covered in smooth gray bark, although trimming will delay this more or less indefinitely. The berries are packed along the branches and they turn red by October, and stay on the bush well into the winter, and certainly through the holidays, when you can cut branches for wreaths, table-decoration or vases.
As a specimen on a lawn, grown as a screen, or clipped into a more formal hedge, the American holly is always going to look great. Why should you choose it over other holly bushes?
- It is more cold resistant than many others, growing well in zones 5 and 6, and generally holding its leaves through winter. Winters being what they are in cold zones, you may see some loss of color during the coldest weather, but nothing to worry about. Even better, in a sever winter, or at the edges of zone 4, when lows can reach minus 20 F, even if the leaves do drop there is no need for alarm. Some novice gardeners have made the mistake of rushing out in spring and cutting back the bare branches on their American holly after a severe winter. Don’t make that mistake, because they are not dead, and once new growth begins, they will leaf out and soon look as good as new again.
- It is more drought resistant than many others. That isn’t a license to grow it in dry soil in the full blazing sun, but this tree is significantly more resistant to summer dryness than many others. Especially in dry shade, which is common under large trees, it will be just fine, once well-established.
- It is a native tree, so it is never invasive. In the north-west, European holly is considered invasive. The American holly is a natural choice for natural gardens – not just there, but of course anywhere, and a worthy tree as well.
If this holly has a fault it is the growth rate, which is slower than for many other hollies. It will grow as much as 12 inches in a year, but if you want large specimens you will have to wait a little longer than with other species, which can grow 2 or 3 times that rate. Still, ‘patience is a virtue’, and one solution of course is to start with larger specimens. Either way, the result is definitely worth the wait.
Some Choice American Holly Bushes
Compared to other hollies there are not so many different varieties of the American holly available. Still, it is always worth seeking out named forms, rather than settling for seedling trees, as these will be uniform in growth, and always superior. Most of them were once seedlings that were selected for their improved appearance, so why pass by the best?
Jersey Princess and Jersey Knight
These two varieties were selected by Dr Elwin Orton of Rutgers University, a well-known and skilled plant breeder. As their names suggest they are male and female trees, and this raises an important point with holly bushes. Berry trees are female, and they normally cannot develop berries without male pollen in spring, brought to them on the wind from nearby trees. It always pays to have a few male trees in your yard, and ‘Jersey Knight’ is a great choice for this, because it will fertilize a wide range of hollies, not just the American one. One male to 5 to 7 female trees is all it takes, so tuck a few into your hedge or screen and see what bumper crops you get. Both of these varieties are notable for holding their leaves better than others, even in very cold winters.
This variety was selected by Stuart McLean, a big-time holly grower in Parkville, Maryland. He named this variety after the road his nursery is on. It is an outstanding berry producer, and it has the virtue of growing much faster than just about any other variety of American holly.
More compact than many others, this variety has foliage with a darker, more olive-green appearance. It is ideal for smaller gardens, and it carries an abundant berry crop. It is another Stuart McLean introduction, found growing wild and named after his wife.
If clipping and trimming are not your thing, but neatness is, then the Greenleaf American holly is what you want. It is very dense and forms a neat pyramid quite naturally. It also has a big berry crop, and it too was once a seedling, found in 1969 at the Monrovia Nursery.
***If you want to check the availability of any of the plants mentioned here, go to our Home Page, click on the ‘Search’ button in the upper right, and type in your choice – both common names and botanical ones will work. If, sadly, you find the item sold out, click on the ‘notify me’ box beside the size you want, and you will get an email the moment that plant is available again – it’s easy.