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Cold Hardy Holly Bushes

May 28, 2018

Written by Dave G.
Blue Prince Princess Combination Holly

Holly is one of the most popular broad-leaf evergreens. It’s deep-green glossy leaves look great in the garden all year round, and the winter bonus of bright red berries really brings color and interest at a low time in the garden. Plus, it’s traditional for the holiday season, so you can make your own wreathes and garlands to brighten your home. For hedges or specimens, these reliable plants get a 5-star rating.

The only problem is, the different kinds of hollies vary a lot in winter hardiness. If it is too cold for them, then the leaves will burn and dry, and stems may die too, making it hard or impossible to get the results you want. So when you choose which varieties to plant, an important consideration is the zone you live in, and the hardiness of the trees you are looking at.

If you live in zone 6 or warmer, you can choose almost any of the hollies, and winter-damage will not be an issue. This problem mostly affects gardeners in zones 4 and 5, so let’s look at those zones, and see what the top-choice holly bushes are for those colder areas.

Holly Bushes for Zone 5

If you live in zone 5, with winter lows going down to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, you have a lot of choices, so it won’t be hard to find a cold-hardy holly for your garden.  The English Holly (Ilex aquifolium), is not hardy below zone 6, and the best choices for zone 5 are Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata), American Holly (Ilex opaca), and the Meserve hybrid hollies. Since some of the plants in this last group is hardy in zone 4 as well, we will consider those later, and focus on the first two for the moment.

Japanese Holly

Just as with boxwoods, Asian species of holly are tougher than their European relatives, so wise American gardeners in cooler areas turn to them for help. Japanese holly grows in Japan, China and Korea, and is different in appearance to other hollies, because the leaves are much smaller – small enough that it is often called the box-leaf holly. With those smaller leaves it is ideal for smaller specimens and hedges, leaving the bigger hedges to other forms. It does have berries, but sadly these are black, not red, so they don’t make a conspicuous winter display. The Japanese holly is a little variable in hardiness, so it’s a good idea to select the variety you use carefully. This plant is very variable in form, ranging from small, rounded and low shrubs to striking narrow, upright specimens. Here are some forms suitable for zone 5.

Soft Touch Holly

We think of ‘holly’ and ‘spiny leaves’ at the same moment, but this dwarf selection of Japanese holly lacks spines, which is why it has this name. It forms a dense, rounded shrub with spineless leaves a little less than an inch long. It grows 2 or 3 feet tall, and the same size across, so it makes a lovely small mound for planting among smaller shrubs, or a low hedge to edge a bed. Even unclipped it is dense, but of course with clipping it will be even denser and neater.

Sky Pencil Holly

To show how variable Japanese holly is, this plant grows 8 to 10 feet tall, but never more than 2 or 3 feet across. It’s great as a narrow column for an accent, growing well in sun or shade. Because it is so narrow, it is ideal for that special problem of the suburbs and town houses – privacy from a neighbor just a few feet away. Planted 18 to 24 inches apart, its easy to create a thin screen in an area just a few feet wide, with enough height to screen ground-floor windows completely. Since it thrives in shade the building shade in these narrow areas is not a problem at all for this plant. It can be clipped to an even narrower profile, but for low-maintenance neatness, its hard to beat.

American Holly

This handsome shrub grows 15 to 20 feet tall, and as least 12 feet wide, in time, so it is a popular choice for hedges and large specimens for screening. It forms a dense shrub, and can easily be clips to become even denser, and it has the added benefit of producing lots of red berries in winter. It is much tougher than many other hollies, thriving in urban conditions, poor soil, drought and poor drainage. There are few situations where this shrub won’t do well, so plant it with confidence, in full sun or partial shade. Even deer usually leave it alone.

If you are in zone 5 in an exposed location, American Holly may suffer some winter burn – it does best in sheltered parts of this zone, so it may not be your ideal choice in a windswept, open garden. For tougher choices, turn to the Meserve hybrid hollies.

Meserve Hybrid Hollies

Kathleen K. Meserve was an enthusiastic 20th century amateur gardener who had a 10-acre garden in St James, Long Island. She loved holly and wanted to create very hardy hollies that had red berries. She used an obscure Japanese species – Ilex rugosa – to create hybrids with the English holly and got what she wanted. The hybrid is called Ilex x meserveae. The foliage of these plants is such a dark green that it can look bluish, so they are often called Blue Hollies, and all the names of her original hybrids contain the word ‘Blue’. Because she was so fond of those berries she carefully matched up male and female trees to give the best crops. If you love them too, pair up ‘Blue Princess’ with ‘Blue Prince’ – you can guess which one has the berries, yes? Actually, all the male blue hollies make good pollinators, and a choice like ‘Blue Maid’ for a female will work just as well. You need one male for every 4 or 5 female trees, to get a bumper crop. ‘Blue Maid’ is also one of the best an biggest of Mrs. Meserve’s trees, reaching 8 or 10 feet in height, and 6 feet or more across – plenty big enough for a sturdy hedge.

Because of that bluish tone in the leaves, in the 1990s a breeder in Germany took some of those original trees and crossed them back with plants of the European holly to get greener leaves. He got some great plants, completely hardy in zone 5, and so ideal for that area. Two of the best are Castle Wall Blue Holly – a male tree, and Castle Spire Blue Holly – a beautiful female tree with loads of red berries. These German hybrids are very vigorous, growing to 8 or 10 feet tall, and you can plant Castle Spire, with a few Castle Wall thrown in, and get a terrific informal screen with loads of winter color, and a dense, formal hedge with a couple of clips a year.

Holly Bushes for Zone 4

If you live in zone 4, your best choices are simple – the Meserve Hollies with the original ‘Blue’ names of Mrs. Meserve. The German hybrids have more European Holly in them, and they are not as hardy. If you stick to those originals, you too can enjoy the beauty of holly in a zone 4 winter – just like everyone else.

Comments 24 comments

  1. July 24, 2019 by Cynthia Virtue

    Thank you for this article – very useful!

  2. November 29, 2019 by Mary Kritz

    which hollies might do ok in zone 3?

    1. November 30, 2019 by Dave G

      Only the deciduous hollies – Ilex verticillata and its varieties – will grow in zone 3. No chance at all with the evergreen ones, even the x meserveae group (Blue Princess, etc). It has good berries, but doesn’t look like ‘holly’ in any other way. Make sure you have a male plant as well, for good pollination and a big berry crop.

  3. April 2, 2020 by Joseph

    Thank you for putting this article together for different Holly varieties for zone 5. I am glad I came across this information before planting the wrong Holly. I was hoping a needlepoint would grow in Wisconsin, but I’m now thinking I should stick to one of these types. Which kind would you think would look better as a hedge with a red brick house?

    1. April 2, 2020 by Dave G

      As suggested in the article, I would use Castle Spire and add a few Castle Wall – about 1 for ever 6 or 7 female trees – for a great hedge with lots of berries (if you trim only at the right times to avoid cutting off the developing berries). We have both in stock right now.https://www.thetreecenter.com/evergreen-trees/holly-trees/

  4. April 4, 2020 by Joseph

    Dave,

    I appreciate the response and I will be ordering in a few days. I can’t wait to see how they’ll look in the landscape.

    Thank you for taking time to respond.

  5. April 22, 2020 by Fernando

    What holly would you recommend that would grow fairly fast to reach 8 ft high to create a privacy wall for USDA Zone 6a, western Massachusetts? I assume Nellie Stevens holly may not be hardy enough ?

    1. April 22, 2020 by Dave G

      Nellie Stevens should be fine, but if you are concerned, choose something from our selection that is shown as hardy to zone 5, Like Castle Spire and Castle Wall (together for the most berries), or Red Beauty.

  6. April 25, 2020 by JANE JONES

    How far apart would you plane Castle Spire and Castle Wall Blue Holly

    1. April 25, 2020 by Dave G

      For a hedge, 3 foot spacing would be about right – you could stretch it to 4 feet if you are not in a big hurry for a solid hedge. Plant one Castle Wall as every 5th tree, for pollination. That way you will have a pretty solid wall of berries when they mature.

  7. April 25, 2020 by JANE JONES

    Do your holly bushes come with a guarantee?

    1. April 25, 2020 by Dave G

      They come with a 30 day guarantee. That will give you time to see how they are when they arrive, and once they have begun to establish.

  8. May 11, 2020 by LindaEsseltine

    I’m looking for a holly with red berries that will grow in zone 5 in partial sun…5- 6 hours. No more than 4 ft. High.

    1. May 11, 2020 by Dave G

      Tough request. Most holly grow much taller, and you need another tree as a pollinator to have berries. Perhaps a combination Blue Prince and Blue Princess tree, with regular clipping to keep the height you want. Be careful not to accidentally prune out the male tree, which is something that can happen,meaning no more berries.

  9. May 13, 2020 by Mary

    I am looking for a holly that is a shrub, is broad leafed and is hardly in northern Vermont. Help!

    1. May 26, 2020 by Dave G

      Not going to happen – you are in zone 3, or at best margins of zone 4. Your choices of broad leaf shrubs is almost zero, and while you can get a blue holly to grow, it won’t ever be very large or substantial, and often suffer some winter injury. Stick to conifers, you have lots to choose from that will thrive for you.

  10. May 25, 2020 by Andrew

    Hi, thank you for this information. Is there any holly that would grow taller for zone 5 (Minneapolis). The reserve looks great and in our yard would get full sun but we could really use 12’-15’ of height between us and our neighbors 😀

    1. May 26, 2020 by Dave G

      For screening it is always a bad idea to plant right to your zone – so in zone 5 you should be using something hardy at least to zone 4. Otherwise, in a severe winter, you can lose 10 years of growth overnight. Remember that 15 feet would need at least a 5 foot base, and arborvitae (which would be my choice, boring as it is) is going to get to take a long time to get that tall. Are you sure you hate your neighbors that much? If it’s a wide enough area, a line of deciduous trees will give you screening except in winter. Maybe a columnar red maple, or similar.

  11. June 22, 2020 by Kathy

    Would blue hollies do well interplanted with redosier dogwood in zone 4?

    1. June 23, 2020 by Dave G

      That does sound like a nice planting combination, and they do enjoy similar conditions, so definitely. Blue holly will usually suffer some winter damage in zone 4, but not die, so they will probably not reach the potential height that grow to in warmer zones.

  12. July 17, 2020 by Sam T

    We live in northern Ohio and have a holly bush in our yard. It’s only a foot tall and about two feet wide. I never have to trim it and it seems to require no attention. I can’t seem to find a matching bush anywhere. Do you know what kind it is and do you carry them?

    1. July 17, 2020 by Dave G

      Sorry, holly are very hard to identify, even with actual samples. You are in zone 6, probably, and a lot of hollies do well there, but it is possible it is one of the blue hollies, which have very dark green leaves, with a bluish tone. These are among the hardiest, and there are some that are small – that’s about the best I can do! We do stock blue holly if you look at our ‘holly bushes’ page.

  13. August 31, 2020 by Indre

    Is there a holly variety that does ok in a shade? Zone 6.

    1. September 1, 2020 by Dave G

      All will tolerate partial shade well, and even light full shade under deciduous trees. Zone 6 is suitable for most, but you will probably find that Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata) best if you don’t care about red berries. It is more shade tolerant than other species.