18 Species of Holly Trees and Shrubs

Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018
  • 01 of 20

    Meet the Ilex Genus - Holly Trees and Shrubs

    Holly Tree
    Jeiline/Flickr/CC 2.0

    Holly trees and shrubs are classified as Ilex spp. and are the only genus that belongs to the Aquifoliaceae family. They can be deciduous or evergreen and form into trees, shrubs or lianas.

    Many (though not all) species have leaves that either feature spiny teeth or serrated edges. Spiny species can serve well in creating privacy barriers.

    Almost all holly species are dioecious, meaning that you will need to plant both males and females if you desire fruit. One male plant is able to pollinate a few female plants. They produce drupes (not berries) that are often red but may come in shades of white, yellow, purple or black. They are at least somewhat toxic if eaten, so consider that fact if planting in a spot visited by small children.

    If you only have room for one holly plant, there are cultivars that are able to produce fruit without pollination in a process called parthenogenesis. One of the most popular parthenogenic cultivars is ‘Nellie R. Stevens’, which resulted from a cross between hybrid between English holly (Ilex aquifolium and Chinese holly(Ilex cornuta).

    At first, holly was a part of pagan celebrations in the winter. The Romans used it for Saturnalia. Over time it began to be associated with the Christmas season. The two species most often used for decorations are the American holly (Ilex space) and the English holly (Ilex aquifolium).

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  • 02 of 20

    American Holly

    Picture of American Holly
    Nicholas_T/Flickr/CC 2.0

    American holly is often used as a substitute for English holly (Ilex aquifolium) in Christmas decorations where the latter does not grow well. They are similar in appearance with spiny-toothed leaves and an abundance of red berries.

    If you only have room for one American holly tree, look for the 'Croonenburg' variety. It is able to pollinate itself because it has male and female flowers on the same plant. If you would prefer yellow fruit, choose 'Canary'. There is also a natural version called f. xanthocarpa.

    In 1939, American holly was named as the state tree of Delaware.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex opaca
    • Other Common Names: Hummock holly, dune holly, scrub holly
    • Native to: Southern and eastern United States
    • USDA Zones: 5 to 9
    • Height: 15' to 60' tall
    • Exposure: Full sun to part shade
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  • 03 of 20

    Carolina Holly

    Carolina Holly
    Homeredwardprice/Flickr/CC 2.0

    The Carolina holly is a deciduous species. It can grow well in sandy soils, which makes it easy to see why another common name for this is sand holly. Bright red fruits are produced in the fall, though they tend to fall off easily which removes the potential for winter interest.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex ambigua
    • Other Common Names: Possum holly, sand holly, ambiguous winterberry
    • Native to: Southeastern United States
    • USDA Zones: 7 to 9
    • Height: Usually 15' to 20' tall
    • Exposure: Full sun to part shade
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  • 04 of 20


    Catberry shrub
    Jillllybean/Flickr/CC 2.0

    The catberry used to be known as Nemopanthus mucronatus. It is now classified as part of the Ilex genus. This shrub likes areas that are moist. Like the long-stalked holly, the red fruit is found at the end of long stems called peduncles. The fruit are a source of food for migratory birds.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex mucronata
    • Other Common Names: Mountain holly, cat berry
    • Native to: Eastern North America
    • USDA Zones: Hardy to Zone 4
    • Size: 6' to 10' tall and 4' to 10' wide
    • Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
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  • 05 of 20

    Chinese Holly

    Chinese Holly
    Oshokim/Flickr/CC 2.0

    Chinese holly is an evergreen shrub or small tree that can be planted as part of a drought tolerant landscape. The name horned holly comes from the shape of the leaves. On the species plant, three of the spiny lobes stick up and look like horns. This is an excellent choice for a pruned privacy hedge.rns. This is an excellent choice for a pruned privacy hedge.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex cornuta
    • Other Common Names: Horned holly
    • Native to: China and Korea
    • USDA Zones: 7 to 9
    • Height: 6' to 25' tall depending on variety
    • Exposure: Full sun to part shade
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  • 06 of 20

    Common Winterberry

    Picture of the common winterberry
    Nacho 13/Flickr/CC 2.0

    This deciduous shrub will provide a vibrant pop of color in your winter landscape thanks to the abundance of scarlet berries. This species does well in wet areas and its native habitats are places like bogs or swamps. It may produce suckers and spread through your yard.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex verticillata
    • Other Common Names: Coralberry, black alder, Michigan holly, Canada holly, deciduous holly, winterberry holly, deciduous winterberry, fever bush, possumhaw, Virginian winterberry, brook alder, swamp holly, winterberry
    • Native to: Eastern North America
    • USDA Zones: 3 to 9
    • Height: 6' to 12' tall
    • Exposure: Full sun to part shade
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  • 07 of 20

    Dahoon Holly

    Dahoon Holly
    Starr Environmental/Flickr/CC 2.0

    If you have a location that tends to be a bit wetter than most plants like, consider hunting down a dahoon holly. These small trees are naturally found in swampy areas. It has three varieties: Ilex cassine var. cassineIlex cassine var. angustifolia and Ilex cassine var. mexicana. Some botanist also consider the myrtle-leaved holly to be a variety of this species.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex cassine
    • Other Common Names: Cassena
    • Native to: Caribbean, eastern United States and Mexico
    • USDA Zones:  5 to 10
    • Size: 20' to 40' tall and 8' to 20' wide
    • Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
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  • 08 of 20

    English Holly

    English Holly
    Jacilluch/Flickr/CC 2.0

    When someone mentions holly, especially in conjunction with Christmas, they often mean the English holly. Its familiar shape is the one used to adorn Christmas decorations and inspire songs. This is the type species for holly.

    There are cultivars available with characteristics like variegated leaves (ex: 'Monvila' - Gold Coast) or golden/apricot fruit (ex: 'Apricot Glow'). The blue hollies or Meserve hollies (Ilex × meserveae) are the result of crossing this species with Tsuru holly (Ilex rugosa).

    • Scientific Name: Ilex aquifolium
    • Other Common Names: Christmas holly, holme, common holly, Oregon holly, European holly, hollin
    • Native to: Europe, Asia, and Africa
    • USDA Zones: 7 to 9
    • Height: 15' to 50' tall
    • Exposure: Full sun to part shade
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  • 09 of 20

    Finetooth Holly

    Finetooth holly bonsai
    Ryan Somma/Flickr/CC 2.0

    This is one of the deciduous holly species and handles cold better than some of the other species. If you prefer a cultivar with yellow fruit instead of the more common red ones, choose ‘Leucocarpa’ (which may also have white fruit), 'Sundrops' or ‘Xanthocarpa’.

    A cultivar named 'Sparkleberry' with bright red berries is the result of a cross between this species and the common winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

    • Scientific Name: Ilex serrata
    • Other Common Names: Japanese winterberry, deciduous holly
    • Native to: China and Japan
    • USDA Zones: 5 to 8
    • Height: 6' to 15' tall
    • Exposure: Full sun to part shade
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  • 10 of 20

    Hawaiian Holly

    Hawaiian Holly
    D.Eickhoff/Flickr/CC 2.0

    As the name suggests, this species of holly is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. Like the inkberry, the fruit are purple-black. The happy face spider (Theridion grallator) likes to live on this plant.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex anomala
    • Other Common Names: ʻAiea, kāwaʻu, kä‘awa‘u, Hawai'i holly
    • Native to: Hawaii
    • USDA Zones: Unknown
    • Height: 30' to 40' tall
    • Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
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  • 11 of 20


    Scott.zona/Flickr/CC 2.0

    Most cultivars of the inkberry produce black fruit on the female plants, though 'Ivory Queen' and 'Leucocarpa' have white fruit. The leaves on this species do not have spines. It can become invasive if you do not prune away the suckers.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex glabra
    • Other Common Names: Evergreen winterberry, inkberry holly, dye-leaves, gallberry, Appalachian tea, bitter gallberry
    • Native to: Eastern and south-central United States
    • USDA Zones: 5 to 9
    • Height: 4' to 8' tall
    • Exposure: Full sun to part shade
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  • 12 of 20

    Japanese Holly

    Japanese holly
    Wallygrom/Flickr/CC 2.0

    The name box-leaved holly is used because the leaves look like those of boxwood shrubs. The fruit produced is black and not as distinct as others in the genus. It is considered to be invasive in some areas.

    This holly species can be used to create topiaries. 'Sky Pencil' is a fastigiate cultivar that can be used to create a living fence. 'Golden Gem' is a variegated cultivar that garnered the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex crenata
    • Other Common Names: Box-leaved holly
    • Native to: China, Korea, and Japan
    • USDA Zones: 5 to 8
    • Height: 3' to 10' tall
    • Exposure: Full sun to part shade
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  • 13 of 20

    Longstalked Holly

    Longstalked Holly shrub
    Wlcutler/Flickr/CC 2.0

    This species is called long-stalked holly because the fruit is found at the end of a long stalk called a peduncle. They do well at adding color to your garden during fall and winter. This holly is a good choice for urban locations since it is able to handle pollution and salt.d winter. This holly is a good choice for urban locations since it is able to handle pollution and salt.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex pedunculosa
    • Other Common Names: Longstalk holly
    • Native to: China, Japan and Taiwan
    • USDA Zones: 5 to 8
    • Size: 10' to 30' tall and usually on the shorter side
    • Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
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  • 14 of 20

    Lusterleaf Holly

    Lusterleaf Holly
    Wlcutler/Flickr/CC 2.0

    The green leaves on this holly species are indeed lustrous. The foliage is used in China to brew a tea. The berries are not as bright as those on other species, though they still add color during wintertime.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex latifolia
    • Other Common Names: Tarajo holly, tarajo
    • Native to: China and Japan
    • USDA Zones: 7 to 9
    • Height: 15' to 25' tall, up to 60' in native locations
    • Exposure: Full sun to part shade
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  • 15 of 20

    Myrtle-Leaved Holly

    Myrtle-Leaved Holly
    Homeredwardprice/Flickr/CC 2.0

    The leaves on this tree are like those of the myrtle (Myrtus communis), inspiring the common and species names. They are tiny and spineless. Some botanists consider this to be a variety of the dahoon holly (Ilex cassine) and the two are said to cross sometimes.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex myrtifolia
    • Other Common Names: Dahoon, myrtle dahoon, myrtle holly, myrtleleaf dahoo, myrtleleaf holly
    • Native to: Southeastern United States
    • USDA Zones: 7 to 10
    • Height: Usually 15' to 25' tall, but can reach 40'+
    • Exposure: Full sun to part shade
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  • 16 of 20

    Round Leaf Holly

    Round Leaf Holly
    Harum.koh/Flickr/CC 2.0

    The foliage of the round leaf holly does not have spines. This tree is one of the species that was able to come back after the Hiroshima bombing in 1945. The Japanese name given to these survivors is Hibakujumoku.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex rotunda
    • Other Common Names: Kurogane holly, Kurogane-mochi
    • Native to: China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam
    • USDA Zones: 9 to 11
    • Size: Up to about 40' tall
    • Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
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  • 17 of 20

    Small-Leaved Holly

    Small-Leaved Holly
    Ies38010797/Flickr/CC 2.0

    Some hollies are endemic and only found in limited areas. The small-leaved holly comes from a couple of islands near the north African coast and grows in a type of forest called laurisilva or laurel forest.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex canariensis
    • Other Common Names: Azevinho, acebiño
    • Native to: Macaronesian islands of Madeira and Canarias
    • Size: Up to 32' tall
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  • 18 of 20

    Yaupon Holly

    Yaupon Holly
    Homeredwardprice/Flickr/CC 2.0

    If you live near a seashore, choose this holly as it tolerates salt well. It also serves as a drought tolerant tree.

    The name Indian black drink is used because the berries of this species were used in a ceremonial drink by Native Americans. It would make them vomit, leading to the species name and the moniker of emetic holly.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex vomitoria
    • Other Common Names: Christmas berry, yaupon, evergreen holly, emetic holly, cassine, cassena, evergreen cassena, cassina or Indian black drink
    • Native to: Southeastern United States
    • USDA Zones: 7 to 9
    • Size: 4' to 30' tall and 8' to 20' wide
    • Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Growing profile for the yaupon holly
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  • 19 of 20

    Yerba Mate

    Yerba Mate tree
    Dick Culbert/Flickr/CC 2.0

    Tea made from this plant is traditionally placed inside a gourd and served with a metal straw in South America. These straws are capped at the end with a piece full of small holes. They allow one to drink the tea without sipping up bits of leaves. The foliage contains caffeine and theobromine, which are also found in cacao beans. Some studies suggest that there may be health benefits offered by the plant (more information is needed and you should consult a health professional before trying to use it medicinally) and it is traditionally used in alternative medicine in its native countries.

    This species needs to be grown in soil that is acidic. You can create new plants through seed germination. The new tree will be ready for foliage use in a few years. In practice, each plant is only harvested every other year so that it retains enough leaves for proper growth.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex paraguariensis
    • Other Common Names: Paraguay tea, South American holly, Brazilian tea, Jesuit tea, St. Bartholemew's tea, mate
    • Native to: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay
    • USDA Zones: 9 to 11
    • Size: Up to 59' tall and 13' wide, though often a small tree or shrub
    • Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
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  • 20 of 20

    Interested in Other Trees and Shrubs?

    Weeping Willow
    Bonnie Brown/Flickr/CC 2.0