How to Tell Male and Female Holly Bushes Apart

You Can See the Difference in the Flowers

This is what a male holly's flower looks like.
You can tell the sexes apart on holly shrubs by looking at the flowers (this one's a male). David Beaulieu

How do you tell male holly bushes apart from females? You have to use their respective flower structures to make a proper sex identification. You will discover how to do that below, as well as learning why it is important to be able to tell the difference between the genders of this plant. 

Yes, Hollies Have Sex, Too

Here is the situation. You have had one holly shrub in your yard for years, and it has never produced berries. At some point, you start to question why. You learn, subsequently, that holly plants are dioecious and need a mate, so you correctly reason that the lack of berry production must be attributed to one of two possible causes:

  1. You have a male holly shrub.
  2. You have a female holly shrub, but its flowers have not been pollinated.

So now you have to determine what gender your holly shrub is, then go out shopping for either a male holly bush or a female, so that your holly will have a mate for reproduction. The question is, though, without having the crutch of holly berries (a sure indication of the female gender in hollies) to rely on for identification, how can you tell the genders apart?

The answer lies in the flowers, as male holly flowers are different from female holly flowers (of course, this limits identification to those periods when that particular type of holly comes into bloom).

Both male hollies and females bear flowers that have four petals -- so that fact is no help in identifying them. However, take a closer look at the flowers -- specifically, at what protrudes from their centers. Male holly flowers have four yellow stamens. By contrast, each female bloom has a green ovary (that is the green "bump" in the center of its bloom).

For a picture of male holly flowers, please see the photo at the top of the page. Inspect the fully-opened bloom in that picture. Do you see something yellowish protruding from the flower center? Those are the stamens. And that is how you would know this particular holly plant is a male.

Examples of Male Cultivars

If you go to a garden center in fall with the intention of buying a holly bush, chances are good that you will be drawn to a female. After all, these shrubs are famous for their berries. If you spot a female bristling with gorgeous red berries, it is understandable that it will attract your attention. In fact, in your excitement, you may return home from your shopping with just the female. Sadly, lacking a male consort to pollinate her, that may be the last time you see berries on her branches (until you remedy the situation).

Fortunately, the better garden centers carry male cultivars that you can buy for purposes of pollination (they may even remind you that you need to buy a boy and a girl in order to have berries). Examples of male cultivars include:

  1. ‘Jersey Knight' (the consort of ‘Jersey Princess')
  2. 'Blue Prince' (the consort of 'Blue Princess' holly)
  3. ‘Edward J. Stevens’ (the consort of 'Nellie R. Stevens')