How to Grow and Care for English Holly

English holly tree with bright red berries and deep green leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

English holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a perennial evergreen shrub commonly associated with Christmas. The iconic shape of its green, thorny leaves coupled with bright red berries have made it a favorite component of festive wreaths, decorations, and holiday bouquets.

Also sometimes referred to as Christmas holly or common holly, this slow-growing shrub can grow to the size of a tree, reaching up to 50 feet tall if not pruned to remain smaller. Their attractive evergreen nature makes them an excellent choice for winter landscaping, either individually or to develop a hedgerow.

Holly berries ripen in the fall and remain on the branches throughout the winter. They make an excellent food source for wildlife during this period. You're likely to see birds congregating around your holly bush in the colder months. Birds can safely eat holly berries, but the beautiful red fruits are toxic to humans and pets.

Also, English holly is considered an invasive species in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States because it thrives in the temperate climate and spreads vigorously.

Common Name English Holly, common holly, European holly
Botanical Name Ilex aquifolium
Family Aquifoliaceae
Plant Type Evergreen Tree or shrub
Mature Size 30-50 ft. tall
Sun Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Soil Type Well-drained
Soil pH Acidic to neutral
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color Blue/lilac shades
Hardiness Zones 5-8 (USDA)
Native Area Western and southern Europe, northwest Africa, and southwest Asia
Toxicity Toxic to humans and pets

English Holly Care

If you're looking for a shrub that will establish quickly in your garden, don't opt for English Holly. This shrub is slow-growing. But, once established, it can thrive for decades in the right position with very little maintenance.

While it is tolerant of a variety of soils, English holly doesn't appreciate extremes in temperature. Both high heat and freezing temperatures can damage or kill this shrub.


English holly is considered an invasive species in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States because it thrives in the temperate climate and spreads vigorously.

English holly tree branch with deep green and sharp-edged leaves with bright red berries closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

English holly tree branches with deep green leaves and bright red berries covered in snow

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

English holly tree branch with deep green and sharp-edged leaves closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova


English holly prefers full sun or partial shade for optimum growth, but it can survive in full shade.


English holly isn't particular about the type of soil; its primary requirement is well-drained soil so that its roots do not stay wet all the time. Acidic soil will promote the best growth.


English holly is a fairly drought-tolerant shrub, but it prefers moist (not waterlogged) conditions in the warmer months. It should be kept drier during the winter.

Temperature and Humidity

Providing you live in a location that isn't subject to extremes of temperature, your English holly should do well regardless of the humidity level.

Hard frosts can kill off entire healthy branches, and too much heat can cause leaf dropping and scorching.


Fertilizing your English holly annually in the spring can promote good new growth. It does well with acidic fertilizers.


Holly bushes can cope with extreme pruning. Just be aware that after a hard cut back the bush will look very bare, and it can take a couple of years for decent growth to reappear.

In general, annual pruning can be done to tidy up hedgerows, prevent holly from encroaching on other shrubs, and create topiary shapes.

Propagating English Holly

Propagating from cuttings or growing from seeds isn't a quick process with English holly—cuttings take about 2 years to root, and seeds take 2 to 3 years to germinate. It's much more practical to purchase additional plants.

Potting and Repotting English Holly

English holly will generally be too large for containers at full, mature size. But, because it's slow-growing, a young shrub can be contained in a container for several years before transplanting is necessary.

Be aware that the transplanting process can result in the shrub losing its leaves. New leaves should emerge the following spring.

Plants kept in containers are more likely to dry out, so make sure to keep the soil moist (not drenched).


English holly is cold tolerant and doesn't require special care to survive the winter. It benefits from the period of cold and will fare better outdoors than indoors.

Common Plant Diseases

Holly is hardy and not very susceptible to pests or diseases. However, the following issues may affect a holly shrub, especially if it is grown in conditions that compromise its resistance, such as overly wet soil: root rot, anthracnose, tar spot, leaf blight, and bot canker. These fungal diseases can be treated by reducing water input, amending the soil to improve drainage, and applying fungicide if necessary.

  • What are other types of holly I can grow?

    There are many types of holly that have different characteristics such as size and leaf shapes. Consider Carolina holly (Ilex ambigua), Dahoon holly (Ilex cassine), Lusterleaf holly (Ilex latifolia), or American holly (Ilex opaca).

  • How long does an English holly shrub live?

    A well-tended English holly shrub can live up to 100 years.

  • Will my holly shrubs propagate on their own?

    English holly shrubs are dioecious, meaning they require both male and female plants for pollination and propagation to occur.

Article Sources
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  1. Holly Berries. Poison Control.