How to Grow and Care for Japanese Holly

Japanese holly shrubs with dense cone-shaped branches in front of fence

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Japanese holly, Ilex crenata, is an evergreen shrub with a dense branching pattern and a moderate rate of growth. Many gardeners enjoy using it as a lush hedge or border, or to create topiaries. The shrub generally features rounded, glossy, dark green leaves that are only a little more than an inch long. It sports small, white, four-petaled flowers in the late spring that tend to attract bees and other pollinators. The flowers give way to small, black, rounded fruits. The shrub can be planted in the fall or spring.

Japanese holly is toxic to humans, dogs, and cats. It is considered invasive in some areas.

Common Names Japanese holly, box-leaved holly
Botanical Name Ilex crenata
Family Aquifoliaceae
Plant Type Shrub
Mature Size 3–10 ft. tall, 3–8 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Well-drained
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 5b–8b (USDA)
Native Area Asia
Toxicity Toxic to humans, dogs, and cats

Japanese Holly Care

Japanese holly is a fairly low-maintenance plant as long as you start it off healthy. It’s important to plant it in a site that has good soil drainage and some protection from the elements, especially bitter winds.

Once mature, the shrub typically needs watering only during dry spells and feeding once a year but can benefit from the addition of compost and mulch. The plant doesn’t need a lot of pruning unless you’re aiming to train it in a particular shape, such as a curving topiary.

Warning

Japanese holly is considered an invasive species in some areas of the United States because it can escape cultivation and dominate the understory of forests.

Japanese holly shrub branches with small rounded and glossy leaves

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Japanese holly branches with rounded leaves and small rounded fruits closeup

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Japanese holly shrub branch with rounded and glossy leaves with small white flowers closeup

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Light

Japanese holly grows best in full sun to partial shade. In warmer climates, it will appreciate some shade from the harsh afternoon sun. But in cooler climates, it typically should have full sun or at least six hours of direct sunlight on most days to grow its best. Too little light will result in slower growth and less dense branching. 

Soil

This shrub can tolerate a variety of soil types, from sandy and rocky soil to clay soil. Ideally, it should be planted in loose, loamy soil that has good drainage. It prefers a slightly acidic soil pH

Water

Japanese holly plants like a moderate amount of soil moisture. Keep young shrubs in evenly moist but not soggy soil to help them establish their root systems. Mature shrubs have some drought tolerance, and they also can tolerate occasional flooding. However, sitting for too long in wet soil can cause the foliage to turn a pale green and ultimately rot the roots, killing the plant. Water whenever you can stick your finger into the soil and it feels dry a couple of inches down. To help maintain adequate soil moisture and keep the roots cool, add a two to four-inch layer of mulch around the shrub.

Temperature and Humidity

Japanese holly prefers a temperate climate and doesn’t do well in extreme temperatures, both hot and cold. It is best to plant your shrub in a spot that is protected from harsh winds, which can damage the foliage during the winter. The shrub also tends to struggle in areas with high humidity and instead prefers average humidity levels. 

Fertilizer

Apply a slow-release fertilizer in the spring as new growth begins. It also can be beneficial for healthy growth to mix some compost into the soil around the Japanese holly shrub.

Types of Japanese Holly

There are several varieties of Japanese holly, including:

  • Ilex crenata 'Dwarf Pagoda’ is a small cultivar that only reaches around two feet in height with a very compact, dense growth habit.
  • Ilex crenata 'Golden Gem’ is a variegated cultivar.
  • Ilex crenata 'Convexa’ reaches around five to six feet in height and is known to heavily bear black fruit.
  • Ilex crenata 'Helleri’ is a dwarf variety that slowly grows to around two to four feet tall and three to five feet wide.
  • Ilex crenata 'Lemon Gem’: This is a small cultivar that doesn’t often grow taller than three feet and features yellowish foliage in the spring that matures to lime green.
  • Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’: With its narrow, columnar shape and height of six to eight feet, this cultivar is a preferred choice for a living fence.

Pruning

Japanese holly shrubs don’t need much pruning. But they can be cut back as needed to maintain the desired shape. They generally can handle light pruning at any point in the spring to early fall, though any substantial pruning should be performed in the early spring before new growth starts. Avoid pruning roughly two months before the projected first frost in the fall, as pruning can encourage tender new growth that the frost will damage. Remove any dead, damaged, or diseased branches as you spot them. 

To shape your Japanese holly into a hedge or topiary, lightly prune it several times during the growing season. Don’t severely prune it into your desired shape all at once. However, if you have an old shrub that needs rejuvenating, cut it back in the late winter to roughly six to 12 inches off the ground. This will encourage healthy new branches to grow and reform the shrub.

Propagating Japanese Holly

During the dormant season, Japanese holly can be propagated from hardwood cuttings:

  1. Using a sharp knife or pruners. cut a cane right below one of the bud unions (the small bumps where the leaf meets the stem). Then remove about three-quarters of an inch of the cutting above another bud union so you end up with a cutting about six inches in length. Remove all but two sets of leaves.
  2. Dip the bottom end of the cutting in rooting hormone.
  3. Prepare a location where the shrub will receive the necessary full or partial sun exposure. Work coarse sand into the soil and plant the cutting about one inch deep.
  4. If there is no rain or snow, water the cutting frequently to keep it moist. In the spring, the cutting should develop new growth, which indicates that it has rooted. Let it grow in the same location or transplant it to another suitable location.

Growing Japanese Holly from Seed

Most Japanese hollies grown in the landscape are cultivars whose seeds won't produce a plant that is true to its parent. Also, even in ideal conditions, germinating the seeds can take years and it is erratic. Therefore it is not recommended to grow Japanese holly from seed.

Potting and Repotting

Dwarf varieties of Japanese holly are suitable for container growing. Choose a container that is at least eight inches wider than the root ball of the plant to give the shrub room to grow for the next two to three years before upgrading to a bigger container. Terracotta is ideal because it lets excess moisture evaporate and it is heavy enough so the container does not topple over easily. Fill it with a well-draining potting mix and make sure the container has large drainage holes.

Overwintering

Japanese hollies are hardy to USDA zone 5 and, generally, need no winter protection when planted in a suitable location sheltered from strong winds. But they benefit from several inches of mulch over the roots to protect them from the freeze-thaw cycle. The mulch should be spread as wide as the reach of the branches.

The roots of Japanese hollies in containers are susceptible to root damage from winter cold and should be winterized with an insulating silo.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

Japanese holly can be affected by the holly leaf miner whose females suck fluids out of the leaves in the late spring. Other pests include scale, whiteflies, and spider mites. As for plant diseases, root rot, stem cankers, and nematodes are the most common ones that can be damaging to the plant.

How to Get Japanese Holly to Bloom

Japanese holly takes two to three years of growth to bloom for the first time. If yours isn't blooming and you have grown it from a cutting, it might be too young.

Common Problems with Japanese Holly

A common issue is yellowing leaves. This is usually a sign that the soil is too alkaline, which causes iron deficiency in the plant, although there might be sufficient iron in the soil. Hollies can only absorb iron when the soil is slightly acidic, To remedy this, feed it an acid-loving tree-and-shrub fertilizer and follow the label instructions.

FAQ
  • Do I need to plant a male and a female Japanese holly?

    If you want berries, you need two plants, a male and a female, as Japanese holly is dioecious. Note that generally, the shrub won't produce berries until it is six to eight years old.

  • Is Japanese holly the same as a boxwood?

    It looks similar to boxwoods, hence its other common name, box-leaved holly, but it is a different species.

  • How fast does a Japanese holly grow?

    Depending on the variety, it grows six to 12 inches per year, which is considered slow to medium.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ilex crenata. North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.

  2. Poisonous Plants for Dogs. American Kennel Club.

  3. Holly. ASPCA

  4. Japanese Holly. Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States.

  5. Holly Diseases and Insect Pests. Clemson University Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information Center.