Hetz's Japanese Holly

Shrubs That Look Like Boxwood but Aren't

Japanese holly (Hetzii) with concave leaves and black berries.
David Beaulieu

Its glossy, delicate leaves can make Hetz's Japanese holly a great choice if you are in the market for a bush with dense foliage that stays green year-round. Your final decision will depend on the specific use that you have in mind for it. Learn all about this popular plant, including the growing conditions it needs, the landscape functions it can perform well, and the uses for which it is unsuitable.

Botany of Hetz's Japanese Holly

The taxonomy of Hetz's Japanese holly is Ilex crenata Hetzii. It is a female cultivar. The cultivar name of Hetzii is transformed into "Hetz" or "Hetz's" for use in the common plant name.

Hetz's Japanese holly is an evergreen shrub. It is a broadleaved, rather than a needled evergreen.

Features of the Shrub

Ilex crenata Hetzii has an upright habit and grows to become 3 to 6 feet tall at maturity (with a similar width). Its growth rate is moderate, and it is easily kept down to within the lower portion of that range with occasional pruning if so desired. Not grown for its blossoms (which are small and white), it does nonetheless bloom in May. Flowers are succeeded by black berries (horticulturists use the technical term, "drupes").

Landscape designers like the fact that the relatively small leaves of Ilex crenata shrubs give them a fine texture, allowing for contrast with the coarser textures of many other shrubs. These little green leaves are convex (when viewed from above) and can be quite shiny. The branches are tightly packed together.

Planting Zones, Sun and Soil Needs

Deriving from a species indigenous to eastern Asia, Hetz's Japanese holly generally can be grown in planting zones 5 to 8, although the bush's cold-hardiness is not guaranteed throughout a zone-5 area. To improve your plant's prospects of enduring a winter in zone 5, apply mulch and/or furnish it with a microclimate, perhaps with the aid of a shrub shelter.

Some gardeners grow the shrub in full sunshine, but Ilex crenata bushes tolerate shade just fine (berry production may be reduced, though). Regardless of the amount of light you give it, try to grow it in ground that drains well (although they are said to be plants that tolerate clayey soil). They prefer a soil pH that is acidic; otherwise, you may experience some yellowing of the leaves.

Uses for Hetz's Japanese Holly in Landscaping, Care Tips

Use these shrubs in foundation plantings where an evergreen is called for. Being amenable to shearing (like boxwood), they are also suitable for hedges.

This is a good plant for low-maintenance landscaping, requiring relatively little care. But if you have your heart set on berries, you will need to grow a male that will pollinate this female. Holly shrubs are dioecious.

Since Ilex crenata Hetzii is specifically a female cultivar, you can't just go out and get a male Hetz to complement it. So you will have to use a male of a different type of Ilex crenata. The following are examples of suitable cultivars listed as male:

  • Bee Hive
  • Hoogendorn
  • Rotundifolia

Although pollen can travel some distance, experts recommend planting one of these males close by to improve your chances of pollination.

Outstanding Features

As with other evergreens, this shrub will add visual interest to the winter landscape, especially if the black berries are present.

Unlike Ilex aquifolium, Ilex crenata Hetzii does not bear spines. This is a desirable trait if you are looking for a plant that is comfortable to be around. For example, you do not want anything with thorns when landscaping around a swimming pool. But this same quality excludes it if, instead, you are seeking plants for a security hedge.

How to Distinguish It From Boxwood Shrubs

Your initial interest in this plant may stem from its resemblance to the boxwoods. If you are the type who drives around the neighborhood surveying other people's landscaping out of curiosity, you can become annoyed by your inability to say definitively whether you are spotting a boxwood or a Hetz's Japanese holly.

You may wish to satisfy your curiosity by growing the latter (assuming you have already grown boxwood), enabling you to experience it up-close and personal on a regular basis and become intimately acquainted with it. You still may not be able to tell the two bushes apart from a distance, though. For, unfortunately, the two features that allow you to identify Hetz's Japanese holly (as distinguished from boxwood) with the greatest certainty are not discernible from a distance:

  • Its leaf margins, which have little teeth
  • The alternate pattern in which the leaves grow along the branches

A hint regarding the former is contained in the shrub's scientific plant name. Crenata is Latin for "toothed." The leaf margins of boxwood lack teeth. And boxwood sports opposite, not alternate leaves.

Other Types of Japanese Holly:

  • Convexa is very similar to Hetzii.
  • Helleri is a dwarf, mounding type. Several planted in a row would form a medium-sized hedge to serve, for example, as the border for a flower bed.
  • The similar Golden Helleri is one of the shrubs with golden foliage.
  • Quite different from the rest in shape, Sky Pencil forms a striking column. You will often see a pair of Sky Pencils flanking a front-door entryway.