18 Species of Holly Plants

Varieties of Holly Trees and Shrubs

 The Spruce, 2018

Holly trees and shrubs fall within the Ilex genus of plants—the only genus of the Aquifoliaceae family. There are about 480 deciduous and evergreen species within this genus, including trees, shrubs, and climbing lianas. There are native holly plants spread throughout the tropical and temperate regions of the world.

Many (though not all) species of holly have distinctive glossy green leaves that either feature spiny teeth or serrated edges. Almost all holly species are dioecious, meaning that you will need to plant both male and female for cross pollination if you desire fruit. The two species most often used for decorations are the American holly (Ilex opaca) and the English holly (Ilex aquifolium).

Toxicity Warning

All holly berries are at least somewhat toxic if eaten, so consider this if planting them in a spot accessible to small children. The berries contain a caffeine-like alkaloid, and swallowing them can cause vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and drowsiness. Children can develop symptoms after swallowing as few as two holly berries. These are generally not deadly plants, but holly is regarded as mildly or moderately toxic; health professionals may choose to induce vomiting if a substantial number of berries have been eaten.

  • 01 of 18

    American Holly (Ilex opaca)

    American holly

     

    huggy1 / Getty Images

    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. This plant has a number of other common names, including hummock holly, dune holly, and scrub holly. In 1939, American holly was named as the state tree of Delaware.

    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 prefer yellow fruit, choose the 'Canary' variety. There is also a female version with yellow fruit, labeled I. opaca f. xanthocarpa.

    • Native Area: Southern and eastern United States
    • USDA Zones: 5 to 9
    • Height: 15 feet to 60 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 02 of 18

    Carolina Holly (Ilex ambigua)

    Carolina Holly

    Mary Keim / Flickr / CC By 2.0

    Carolina holly is one of the deciduous species of holly. It can grow well in sandy soils, leading to another of the plant's common names—sand holly. Bright red fruits are produced in the fall, though they tend to fall off easily, which makes them less visually interesting in the winter.

    Other common names for Carolina holly include possum holly and ambiguous winterberry.

    • Native Area: Southeastern U.S.
    • USDA Zones: 7 to 9
    • Height: 15 feet to 20 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 03 of 18

    Catberry (Ilex mucronata)

    Cat berry

    Armand Robichaud / Flickr / CC By 2.0

    The catberry used to be known as Nemopanthus mucronatus, but 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 is a source of food for migratory birds. This plant is also known by alternative common names: mountain holly or cat berry.

    • Native Area: Eastern North America
    • USDA Zones: Hardy to zone 4
    • Height: 6 feet to 10 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
  • 04 of 18

    Chinese Holly (Ilex cornuta)

    Chinese holly

     

    undefined undefined / Getty Images

    Chinese holly, also known as horned 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.

    • Native Area: China and Korea
    • USDA Zones: 7 to 9
    • Height: 6 feet to 25 feet, depending on the variety
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
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  • 05 of 18

    Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

    Winterberry

     

    Missing35mm / Getty Images

    The common winterberry 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.

    There are many common names by which I. vericillata is known regionally: coralberry, black alder, Michigan holly, Canada holly, deciduous holly, fever bush, possumhaw, Virginian winterberry, brook alder, and swamp holly.

    • Native Area: Eastern North America
    • USDA Zones: 3 to 9
    • Height: 6 feet to 12 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 06 of 18

    Dahoon Holly (Ilex cassine)

    Dahoon holly

    Ilex cassine / Getty Images

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

    • Native Area: Caribbean, eastern United States, and Mexico
    • USDA Growing Zones:  5 to 10
    • Height: 20 to 40 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
  • 07 of 18

    English Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

    English holly

     

    ilbusca / Getty Images

    When someone mentions holly, especially in conjunction with Christmas, they often mean English holly. Its familiar shape is the one used to adorn Christmas decorations and inspire songs. This widespread plant has several common names, including Christmas holly, common holly, Oregon holly, and European holly.

    There are cultivars available with characteristics such variegated leaves ('Monvila-Gold Coast') or golden/apricot fruit ('Apricot Glow'). The blue hollies or Meserve hollies (Ilex x meserveae) resulted from crossing this species with Tsuru holly (Ilex rugosa).

    • Native Area: Europe, Asia, and Africa
    • USDA Growing Zones: 7 to 9
    • Height: 15 to 50 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 08 of 18

    Finetooth Holly (Ilex serrata)

    Japanese winterberry

     

    igaguri_1 / Getty Images

    This is another of the deciduous holly species, and it handles cold better than some of the other species. Finetooth holly may also be known as Japanese winterberry or deciduous holly. If you prefer a cultivar with yellow fruit instead of the more common red ones, choose I. leucocarpa (which may also have white fruit), 'Sundrops', or I. xanthocarpa.

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

    • Native Area: China and Japan
    • USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 8
    • Height: 6 to 15 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    Continue to 9 of 18 below.
  • 09 of 18

    Hawaiian Holly (Ilex anomala)

    Hawaiian holly

    David Eickhoff / Flickr / CC By 2.0

    As the name suggests, this species of holly is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, where it may be called ʻAiea, kāwaʻu, kä‘awa‘u, or Hawai'i holly.

    Like the inkberry, the fruit on this species is purple-black. The happy face spider plant (Theridion grallator) likes to live on this plant.

    • Native Area: Hawaii
    • USDA Growing Zones: 11 to 12
    • Height: 30 feet to 40 feet tall
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to partshade
  • 10 of 18

    Inkberry (Ilex glabra)

    Inkberry holly

     

    Diane Labombarbe / Getty Images

    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. This plant can become invasive if you do not prune away the suckers.

    Among other common names used for this plant: evergreen winterberry, inkberry holly, gallberry, and bitter gallberry.

    • Native Area: Eastern and south-central U.S.
    • USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 9
    • Height: 4 to 8 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 11 of 18

    Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata)

    Japanese holly

     

    mtreasure / Getty Images

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

    This holly species can be used to create topiaries. 'Sky Pencil' is a fastigiate cultivar—one with erect, parallel branches—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.

    • Native Area: China, Korea, and Japan
    • USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 8
    • Height: 3 to 10 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 12 of 18

    Longstalked Holly (Ilex pedunculosa)

    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. These plants are good for 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.

    • Native Area: China, Japan, and Taiwan
    • USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 8
    • Height: 10 to 30 feet (usually short of the maximum)
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
    Continue to 13 of 18 below.
  • 13 of 18

    Lusterleaf Holly (Ilex latifolia)

    Lusterleaf holly

    Phillip Merritt / Flickr / CC By 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. This plant may also be known as Tarajo holly, or just Tarajo.

    • Native Area: China and Japan
    • USDA Growing Zones: 7 to 9
    • Height: 15 to 25 feet tall, sometimes up to 60 feet in native locations
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 14 of 18

    Myrtle-Leaved Holly (Ilex myrtifolia)

    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. The leaves 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.

    Other common names for this plant include: dahoon, myrtle dahoon, myrtle holly, and myrtleleaf holly.

    • Native Area: Southeastern U.S.
    • USDA Growing Zones: 7 to 10
    • Height: Usually 15 to 25 feet, but can reach more than 40 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 15 of 18

    Round Leaf Holly (Ilex rotunda)

    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 quickly returned after the Hiroshima bombing in 1945—a testament to its tenacity. The Japanese name given to these survivors is Hibakujumoku. It is also known by the common names Kurogane holly and Kurogane-mochi.

    • Native Area: China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam
    • USDA Growing Zones: 9 to 11
    • Height: Up to 40 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 16 of 18

    Small-Leaved Holly (Ilex canariensis)

    small-leaved holly

     

    Freya19 / Getty Images

    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. This species also carries the common names of azevinho and acebiño.

    • Native Area: Macaronesian islands of Madeira and Canarias
    • USDA Growing Zones: 11 to 12
    • Height: Up to 32 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    Continue to 17 of 18 below.
  • 17 of 18

    Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria)

    Yaupon Holly

     

    Photo credit John Dreyer / Getty Images

    If you live near a seashore, choose this yaupon 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 other common name of emetic holly.

    • Native Area: Southeastern United States
    • USDA Zones: 7 to 9
    • Height: 4 to 30 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 18 of 18

    Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis)

    Yerba mate tree

    Vahe Martirosyan / Flickr / CC By 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 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.

    • Native Area: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay
    • USDA Growing Zones: 9 to 11
    • Height: Up to 60 feet
    • Exposure: Full sun to partial shade

Tip

If you only have room for one holly plant, there are cultivars that are able to produce fruit without pollination from a second plant, 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).