Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta) is a popular, versatile evergreen shrub that can grow as a lush large shrub, privacy hedge, or a small, trimmed tree. Small, yellowish-green flowers, each with four tiny petals, attract the first bees of the season. Like other members of the Ilex genus, Chinese holly specifically attracts the ground-nesting Colletes banksia bees.
Throughout the cooler months, most Chinese holly plants sport dark orange or red fruit, while a few cultivars create softer colored yellow berries. Chinese hollies are dioecious, meaning that individual flowers are either male or female. However, only one sex is found on any one plant. You'll need both a male and a female holly to produce fruit. Bees pollinate the flowers. A few cultivars, like 'Burford', doesn't need a pollinator to set fruit. The berries about 1/4 to 1/2 inch in diameter. Unusual rectangular leaves resemble bull horns, and "cornuta" means horn-shaped. Spiny leaves are dark olive glossy green and a prickly. The hairless leaves are leathery and waxy in texture. Each broadleaf is exceptionally shiny compared to others in the Aquifoliaceae family.
The plant is toxic to humans, and toxic to pets.
|Common Name||Chinese holly|
|Botanical Name||Ilex cornuta|
|Plant Type||Shrub, tree|
|Mature Size||8-15 ft. tall, 8-15 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full, partial|
|Soil Type||Moist, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Neutral, acidic|
|Bloom Time||Spring, summer|
|Hardiness Zones||7-9 (USDA)|
|Toxicity||Toxic to humans, toxic to pets|
Chinese Holly Care
Establish this plant in cool weather. Before planting, dig a hole two to three times as wide and only as deep as the rootball. Consider the mature size of the chosen cultivar, as Chinese holly can grow anywhere from eight to 15 feet wide. The wider the hole, the better.
With one hand, hold the plant straight and with the other hand, fill the hole with soil. Pat the soil around the roots to remove any air pockets. When the hole is halfway filled, soak the soil. Continue backfilling. Allow the top edge of the root ball to rest just above ground level. This will allow the roots to settle in the coming rain. Make sure you've planted it where it has room to grow, as mature Chinese holly plants dislike root disturbance and don't transplant well.
Once Chinese holly has been planted properly, it is exceptionally beautiful and also very adaptable. When established, the plants crave only occasional deep watering if the weather is extremely dry but generally prove to be both resistant to drought and heat. Young plants do need additional water until established.
The plant is toxic to humans, and toxic to pets.
Chinese holly grows so bushy and dense that it is actually considered invasive in Georgia. Check with your local extension agent before planting to ensure it's not invasive in your area.
Choose a sunny spot. Chinese holly thrives in full to partial sun but will tolerate shade. Plants grow fullest with more sun. At least five hours of direct sunlight will enable optimum berry production and foliage density.
Chinese holly prefers moist, well-drained soil. It grows in clay, sand, or loam if the soil has excellent drainage. If the clay soil is very dense, mix in organic matter or planting mix to enrich the roots. If the soil is very sandy and drains quickly, add compost to retain moisture.
Once you've planted your Chinese holly, give it a good soak. Top the new soil with mulch or pine straw, leaving room at the base.
Temperature and Humidity
Chinese holly establishes and grows quickly in the USDA zones 7 to 9. In colder climates, the plant might need covering during the winter to help ensure it stays vibrant. It tolerates high temperatures just fine, as well as a wide range of humidity levels, making it a good choice for southern gardens.
Every late winter or early spring, feed plants a slow-release shrub and tree fertilizer. The iron and/or sulfur will promote constant greening. If leaves begin to yellow in mid to late summer, a second fertilization could be helpful. For the amount to use, follow the product label instructions.
Types of Chinese Holly
Some cultivars tend to grow as a shrub, while others tend to grow into a tree. Popular cultivars include:
- 'Burford' makes a beautiful hedge up to 20 feet tall and wide, a rapid-growing cultivar known for heavy fruit-set that is a wise choice for a hedge.
- 'Berries Jubilee' is a more well-behaved Chinese holly that grows in a tamed mound and offers many bright-red berries in fall and winter.
- 'Carissa' is a compact cultivar that only grows 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide.
To maintain a neat privacy hedge, pruning is necessary. Without heavy trimming, these plants can take over an entire garden. Prune in late winter with a sharp pair of pruning shears. Remove dead or damaged branches from the base any time of year.
Propagating Chinese Holly
Propagate Chinese holly from semi-hardwood cuttings. Here's how to do it:
- In summer, cut a six-inch stem tip from the bush, making a sharp and even cut right below one of the small bumps, or "bud union" where the leaf meets the stem. Remove leaves along the bottom four inches of the stem, leaving just the top leaves.
- Dip the cutting in rooting hormone and place the cutting about three inches deep in a container filled with coarse sand and potting soil. Firm the soil around the stem.
- Place the cutting in bright, indirect light in a shelter space.
- Water the cutting frequently and protect it from the elements. In about 6 to 8 weeks, the cutting should have rooted.
- Harden off the new plant before placing in the garden.
How to Grow Chinese Holly From Seed
While it is possible to grow Chinese holly from seed, germination of the seeds can take up to three years, even with the best possible conditions. Given the ease of propagating by cuttings and the lengthy time and care it takes to grow from seed, this method is not recommended.
Potting and Repotting Chinese Holly
Chinese holly appreciates moist, well-drained soil when planted in the ground or a pot. Take extra care to maintain a moist, not soggy, environment in containers. Drainage holes and a high-quality potting mix will provide an ideal beginning for this holly. Choose a rather large pot at least eight inches wider than the root ball. This will give the plant room to grow for the next two to three years before upgrading to a bigger container.
Hollies are quite hardy in their appropriate zones. To protect them from the freeze-thaw cycle during the winter, apply several inches of mulch over the roots. The mulch should extend out as wide as the branches do. Very young plants can be lightly wrapped at the base with burlap for further protection.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
Holly can be troubled by leaf miners, scale, whiteflies, and spider mites. Treat the mites with manual removal; this might be accomplished with a strong blast of water. Leaf miners might need permethrin sprays to eradicate them. Powdery mildew, leaf spot, leaf rot, and tar spot are potential issues as well.
How long can Chinese holly live?
Mature plants may live to 80 years of age when given the proper growing conditions.
What animals does Chinese holly attract?
Birds such as wild turkey, northern bobwhite, mourning dove, cedar waxwing, American goldfinch, and northern cardinal seek its dense foliage for nesting and berries for food.
What Chinese holly would make the best container plant?
For a much shorter hedge or large container specimen for a deck or patio, consider dwarf types, including 'Rotunda' or 'Dwarf Burford', which only grow four feet tall and eight feet wide.
Ilex cornuta. North Carolina State Extension.