How to Grow English Holly

An iconic evergreen shrub closely associated with Christmas

English Holly Bush with red berries close up

dageldog / Getty Images

English Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is the Holly plant species commonly associated with Christmas. With its iconic shape, deep green and thorny leaves, and small red berries, it often features in festive wreaths, decorations and bouquets.

Also sometimes referred to as Christmas Holly or Common Holly, this slow-growing, ornamental, densely-branched evergreen tree can easily grow up to ten meters. It can also be trained to grow as a tall shrub.

Holly berries ripen in fall and remain on the branches throughout winter. They make an excellent food source for wildlife during this period. You're likely to see lots of birds congregating around your holly bush in the colder months.

Their attractive evergreen nature makes them an excellent choice for winter landscaping, either individually or to develop a hedgerow.

Botanical Name Ilex aquifolium
Common Name English Holly, Common Holly, European Holly
Plant Type Evergreen Tree or shrub
Mature Size Up to 10 meters
Sun Exposure Full sun / partial shade
Soil Type Tolerates a variety, but must be well-drained
Soil pH Not particular
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color Blue/lilac shades
Hardiness Zones 5 to 8
Native Area Himalayas region
Close up of English Holly leaves and berries
English Holly is instantly recognizable and often added to festive bouquets. Ivy / Getty Images

How to Grow English Holly

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

Growing well in a variety of soils, the main thing with this shrub is that it doesn't appreciate extremes in temperature. As a result, it isn't generally a plant suited to being grown in the South of the United States.

Light

This shrub prefers a full sun or partial shade position for best growth, but it can still grow in full shade. This is why it can even sometimes be found in dense woodland environments.

Soil

English Holly isn't terribly particular when it comes to the type of soil it will grow in. Providing it's well-drained, it will manage in heavy clay and infertile ground.

It can also cope with a variety of ph levels and can thrive in very acidic soils.

Water

English Holly is a fairly drought-tolerant shrub. It will, however, prefer moist but not waterlogged conditions in the warmer months, and should be kept drier when the colder temperatures hit.

Temperature and Humidity

Providing you live in a location that isn't subject to extremes of temperature, your English Holly should do well.

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

This is why the plant does so well in the mild Pacific Westnoth region, where the species has now naturalized.

Fertilizer

Offering your English Holly an annual feed in the spring can promote good new growth. It does well with a variety designed for plants that like acidic conditions.

Propagating English Holly

Propagating from cuttings or growing from seeds isn't a quick process with English Holly.

Using cuttings can be easier as you don't have to worry about having both sexes of seeds. You may have to wait around two years before the roots are well enough established to transplant into the ground.

Toxicity of English Holly

The berries of this plant are toxic. They can be particularly problematic if consumed by children or pets. Even just a few berries can result in mild symptoms being exhibited.

Symptoms of Poisoning

The most common signs of Holly Berry toxicity can include vomiting, gastric upsets dehydration, and lethargy. In extreme cases, hospitalization and administration of intravenous fluids may be required.

Pruning

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 it encroaching on other shrubs and to create topiary shapes. ,

Being Grown in Containers

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 suitably sized container for several years before needing transplanting to the ground.

Be aware that the transplanting process can result in the shrub losing its leaves. Usually, new leaves will emerge in the spring, providing they have a good position in terms of light, soil, and they aren't overwatered during this period.

Plants kept in containers are more liable to dry out, so more attention to watering should be given, but make sure the soil is only moist and not drenched.

Growing From Seeds

Common Holly is a dioecious species which relies on bees, birds and other wildlife for cross-pollination in the wild.

If you plan to grow from the seeds of your own shrub, you will need to have male and female plants as it isn't self-fertile.

Although you will need to sow seeds around a meter apart if you want to develop it as a hedgerow, be aware it will take some years to fill-in sufficiently. You may wish to purchase young shrubs for this purpose instead.

You should also carefully consider the plant's position. Once established, this shrub doesn't appreciate root disturbance.

Placing any collected seeds in a cold frame in autumn can work well. Be aware that the seeds can take up to a year and a half to germinate.

Going through a process of scarification and then warm and cold stratification can help to move the things along a little quicker.

Once seedlings are planted out, make sure they have winter protection and a good covering of mulch to give them the best chance of coping with any frost.