18 Species of Holly Trees and Shrubs

Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018

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).

  • 01 of 18

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

    Carolina Holly

    Carolina Holly
    Homeredwardprice/Flickr/CC 2.0

    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 makes them less visually interesting in the winter.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex ambigua
    • Other Common Names: Possum holly, sand holly, ambiguous winterberry
    • Native Area: Southeastern United States
    • USDA Zones: 7 to 9
    • Height: Usually 15 feet to 20 feet tall
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 03 of 18


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

    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.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex cornuta
    • Other Common Names: Horned holly
    • Native Area: China and Korea
    • USDA Zones: 7 to 9
    • Height: 6 feet to 25 feet tall depending on the variety
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    Continue to 5 of 18 below.
  • 05 of 18

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

    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 botanists also consider the myrtle-leaved holly to be a variety of this species.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex cassine
    • Other Common Names: Cassena
    • Native Area: Caribbean, eastern United States, and Mexico
    • USDA Zones:  5 to 10
    • Size: 20 feet to 40 feet tall and 8 feet to 20 feet wide
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
  • 07 of 18

    English Holly

    English Holly
    Jacilluch/Flickr/CC 2.0

    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.

    There are cultivars available with characteristics like 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).

    • Scientific Name: Ilex aquifolium
    • Other Common Names: Christmas holly, holme, common holly, Oregon holly, European holly, hollin
    • Native Area: Europe, Asia, and Africa
    • USDA Zones: 7 to 9
    • Height: 15 feet to 50 feet tall
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 08 of 18

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

    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 Area: Hawaii
    • USDA Zones: Unknown
    • Height: 30 feet to 40 feet tall
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
  • 10 of 18


    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 Area: Eastern and south-central United States
    • USDA Zones: 5 to 9
    • Height: 4 feet to 8 feet tall
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 11 of 18

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

    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.

    • Scientific Name: Ilex pedunculosa
    • Other Common Names: Longstalk holly
    • Native Area: China, Japan, and Taiwan
    • USDA Zones: 5 to 8
    • Size: 10 feet to 30 feet tall and usually on the shorter side
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
    Continue to 13 of 18 below.
  • 13 of 18

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

    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 Area: Southeastern United States
    • USDA Zones: 7 to 10
    • Height: Usually 15 feet to 25 feet tall, but can reach more than 40 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 15 of 18

    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 Area: China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam
    • USDA Zones: 9 to 11
    • Size: Up to about 40 feet tall
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
  • 16 of 18

    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 feet tall
    Continue to 17 of 18 below.
  • 17 of 18

    Yaupon Holly

    Yaupon Holly
    Homeredwardprice/Flickr/CC 2.0

    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 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 Area: Southeastern United States
    • USDA Zones: 7 to 9
    • Size: 4 feet to 30 feet tall and 8 feet to 20 feet wide
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 18 of 18

    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 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 Area: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay
    • USDA Zones: 9 to 11
    • Size: Up to 59 feet tall and 13 feet wide, though often a small tree or shrub
    • Exposure: Full sun to partial shade