American Holly Facts

Types of Ilex, Connection to the Winter Solstice

Cardinal perched on an American holly.
American holly (Ilex opaca) provides winter interest. Danita Delimont/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Holly plants (Ilex spp.) are a diverse lot, American holly being just one of many types. Ilex is "one of the few genera that can be grown in all 50 states" in the U.S., as Andrew Bunting, Assistant Director of the Chicago Botanic Garden, writes. There are hundreds of species, distributed among all the continents except for Australia and Antarctica. The plants come in all sizes, ranging from spreading dwarf shrubs 6 inches in height to trees 70 feet tall.

Their shapes vary from rounded to columnar to pyramid-shaped. 

Holly trees and shrubs are sometimes deciduous, but more often evergreen. One holly that is deciduous is winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata). Another characteristic that sets winterberry holly apart from the hollies with which we are most familiar is its tolerance for a variety of growing conditions. For, while most holly cultivars require well-drained soil, winterberry holly will perform just fine in either well-drained soil or wet soil. Winterberry holly loses its foliage before Christmas, but that is a good thing: With no leaves to obstruct the view, the red berries for which we grow the plant take center stage.

Uses for Holly

Landscaping enthusiasts and others use this versatile plant in a number of different ways. Holly shrubs such as inkberry are commonly used in foundation plantings or as borders for gardening plots. Holly trees, such as American holly and the Nellie Stevens variety, as well as the taller holly shrubs, can be used as privacy hedges to screen out traffic or neighbors, or as striking accent plants on a lawn.

More generally, the plant is used to add visual interest to a color-starved northern landscape in winter. 

An example of a medium-sized holly is Little Red holly (Ilex x 'Little Red'). Little Red's dense growth and compact nature (5 feet by 5 feet) make it useful for privacy screens in areas where taller hedges would not work.

This evergreen produces attractive red berries and has a moderate growth rate. Little Red can be grown in full sun or partial shade, and it likes a well-drained soil with an acidic pH. In fact, all hollies prefer to grow in acidic soils, which is why in nature they do so well in oak forests (the "Oak King" and "Holly King," discussed below, have more in common than just their eternal war with one another). Little Red is cold-hardy to zone 6. As broadleaf evergreens, hollies make ideal privacy screens around pools — no leaves or needles to clean up.

Holly has had other uses besides landscaping uses. It is prized for Christmas decorations, both indoors and outdoors. Botanical.com also reports medicinal uses for holly. Herbalists traditionally used holly leaves to treat fever and other ailments. 

Bird watchers, take note: Several bird species are attracted to holly shrubs, including thrushes and blackbirds. According to the USDA Forest Service, holly berries are also eaten in winter by the following species:

  • Wild turkeys.
  • Cedar waxwings.
  • Mourning doves.
  • Goldfinches.
  • Bobwhites.
  • Cardinals.

English, American Holly Plants: Best-Known Types of Ilex

The hollies with which we are most familiar are English holly (Ilex aquifolium) and American holly (Ilex opaca).

This is due to their large size, striking evergreen foliage, and (especially in the case of English holly) long-time association with the winter holiday season. Some varieties of English holly plants grow quite tall, so be careful what you buy. Ilex aquifolium 'Ferox Argentea' reaches the moderate height of 15 feet, with a spread of 8-10 feet. It grows in zones 6-9.

American holly trees are native to the Southeastern U.S. and most of the U.S. states on the Atlantic Coast. The USDA Forest Service, establishing the northern end of American holly plant's range, remarks that the Pilgrims noted American holly's presence in Massachusetts when they landed in 1620. An example of American holly is Ilex opaca 'Mac's Prince,' zones 5-9. It reaches a height of 15-30 feet, with a spread of 10-20 feet.

A pyramid-shaped, evergreen tree with spines on its foliage, American holly blooms in May or June (depending on where you live).

It is a deer-resistant tree. Grow it in a well-drained soil, but keep the soil moist. While it can grow in partial shade, you will achieve denser growth if you give it full sun. American holly is a slow grower and typically matures to a height of 30 feet (but may be taller in the wild). Its prickly leaves are a dark green color. Most types bear red or orange berries. 

Cultivars of American holly include:

  1. 'Jersey Princess' (a female cultivar).
  2. 'Jersey Knight' (a good male pollinator to use with 'Jersey Princess').
  3. 'Canary,' which has yellow berries instead of red ones.

All holly trees and shrubs are dioecious, which is why you see 'Jersey Princess' and 'Jersey Knight' listed above. Since there are distinct male and female plants, a grower seeking berries from the female will want to grow the male, as well. It is the same with hollies that have a shrub form. Thus those who grow a 'Blue Princess' holly will typically grow a 'Blue Prince' shrub nearby. You need to plant a male within 30-40 feet of females in order for the latter to yield berries.

Holly trees and shrubs, depending on the variety, can be grown in zones 3-11. Check with a local nursery for the cultivar(s) suited to your area.

How to Prune Holly

To give your holly a shape of your own choosing, prune back the tips of the current season's growth in late autumn or winter. If you have an old holly plant on your landscape which you wish to rejuvenate, Bunting presents a tip on pruning holly that he calls "hat racking." Specifically, he advises that you trim back branches by 1/2 to 3/4 toward the end of winter.

The reason the method is named "hat racking," according to Bunting, is that what you are left with after this cutting will have such sparse foliage that it will look like a hat rack. When spring arrives, however, the plant will begin to fill in again with leaves. In two to three years, the plant will be covered in leaves once more. "Hat racking," concludes Bunting, "will result in a plant much reduced in size, but still full of foliage."

Holly and the Winter Solstice

"Things have to get worse before they can get better." Those of us in northern climates who enjoy seeing plants growing outside understand the wisdom behind this observation when autumn draws to a close and the winter solstice approaches (around December 21). On the one hand, with each passing day of autumn, we are robbed of more and more daylight. On the other hand, we know that, when the winter solstice does arrive, we will turn the corner: The shortest day will have been reached, and from then on we can only gain daylight.

Ancient peoples, who spent more time outdoors than we do, were very much aware of the annual ebb and flow of daylight, the two poles of which are the winter solstice and the summer solstice (the longest day of the year, around June 21). These two turning points in the year had a big impact on the magic and mythologies of ancient peoples. For the Celts, holly trees had a place in their rituals marking these two poles, each of which indicate when the sun is at its greatest distance from the equator. 

The Celts linked both solstices to holly. Sprigs of holly were worn in the hair during the mistletoe rituals performed by the priests of the Celts, the Druids, at the summer and winter solstice observances. The pointy leaves of holly were thought to give magical protection against evil spirits. Holly sprigs were also brought into their dwellings during the cold-weather months in the belief that they gave shelter to the fairies. 

The Story of the Oak King and the Holly King

In Celtic mythology, the "Oak King" and the "Holly King" were twins, pitted against each other in a never-ending fight for supremacy. Oak trees, sacred to the Celts, are deciduous, while the English holly tree native to their lands is evergreen. As cold weather approached, the Celts marveled at how the evergreen holly trees, hidden among the leafy oaks the rest of the year, now stood out on an otherwise barren landscape. The Holly King had won out, as it were, as the forces of his twin brother, the oaks, had shed all of their leaves and stood naked in defeat.

But by the time the winter solstice arrives, the tide has turned. The flow now favors the Oak King, even though we do not notice this, at first. The Oak King's flow in power is the Holly King's ebb. The deciduous twin takes his first baby steps towards re-establishing his supremacy. The Oak King's supremacy will not reach its peak until midsummer, when the oaks will be in full leaf again.

At that point, it is now the Holly King who will be riding the new wave. The evergreen twin lays the foundation in the summer heat for a reign that will reach its peak/end at the winter solstice. Thus, ironically, whenever either king reaches the height of his dominance, at that very time he is doomed to be replaced. 

Holly in Ancient Roman, Christian Culture

For the Romans, "Holly was used to honor Saturn, god of agriculture, during their Saturnalia festival held near the time of the winter solstice. The Romans gave one another holly wreaths, carried it in processions, and decked images of Saturn with it," according to the Kentucky Cooperative Extension.

The Saturnalia was the festival upon which the Christmas holiday was directly modeled. Evergreens such as holly were adopted by common Christians as a Christmas decoration, in spite of protests from Church Fathers such as Tertullian. A tiny flicker of this age-old controversy still burns today.

In Christian folklore, the prickly leaves of holly trees came to be associated with Jesus' crown of thorns, while their berries represented the drops of blood shed for humanity's salvation. This symbolism can be found, for example, in the Christmas carol, "The Holly and the Ivy". Christian folklore also identified holly wood as the wood used to build Jesus' holy cross.

In fact, some scholars think that the word, "holly" is simply a corruption of "holy," although there is no general consensus on this point. What is beyond doubt is that holly has a central place in our Christmas traditions.