How to Grow American Holly

Holly plants such as the Christmas holly are beautiful shrubs that make excellent mixed borders, hedges and foundation plantings. They also look striking on their own.

People often recognize the classic Christmas holly with its red berries and glossy, prickly leaves. But there are many more varieties, including plants with small oval leaves and no thorns. Some hollies are evergreen, while others are deciduous, dropping their leaves in the fall.

There are about a dozen types of holly most commonly seen in gardens, although the varieties available depend on where you live.

“There is at least one variety of holly that will grow where you live,” says Stacey Hirvela, horticulturist at Proven Winners Color Choice Shrubs. “They are popular because they are beautiful, low maintenance and shade tolerant. They are a good choice if you don’t have full sun in your garden.”

Here’s what you need to know about growing a holly plant:

What kind of holly plants are over there?

The most common types of holly are:

  • American evergreen holly (Ilex opaca) is a popular landscape plant in the Northeast. It’s the one most people think of as holly, with iconic glossy evergreen leaves and red berries.
  • Blue holly (Ilex x meserveae) has a very classic appearance. The glossy toothed leaves are dark green with a bluish caste and the berries are bright red.
  • Inkberry (Ilex glabra) is native to the US and is often used as an alternative to boxwood. It is super tolerant of many different types of soils and conditions. It has small oval leaves and a rounded erect shape with small black berries.
  • Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) is also sometimes used as an alternative to boxwood. It has rounded leaves and small black berries.
  • Winter holly (Ilex verticillata) is a deciduous native species that birds love. After the foliage has fallen, the beautiful bright red berries put on a show all winter long, contrasting beautifully with snow and adding winter interest to the landscape.

How do I care for my holly bush?

Holly likes acidic soil, which is not uncommon for evergreens, says Hirvela. If the pH is not on the acidic side, they tend to turn yellow and look rather sparse. They don’t mind the sun, but they tolerate quite a bit of shade, especially in warmer regions of the country. In the north, hollies get their best flowers and fruit in the sun.

Hollies are slow growing, making them an excellent low maintenance shrub. And they absolutely hate being pruned.

Trimming is not even recommended. However, it’s fine to cut a little here and there for the holidays.

Hollies are not drought tolerant, nor will they grow in dry conditions. Give these shallow-rooted shrubs a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch to conserve moisture.

Plus, holly aren’t as deer resistant as you might think with those prickly leaves! Deer actually like blue and Japanese hollies, and will especially go for tender new shoots.

Plants with heavy leaf damage may not recover. Winterberry and American varieties are not as attractive to deer. But remember, there is no such thing as a deer resistant plant, only deer resistant plants!

Why isn’t my holly plant producing berries?

All hollies are “dioecious,” meaning that a female plant will not produce berries without a separate male plant nearby. That means you need at least two plants (both a male and a female) for cross-pollination to take place.

Typically, one male can pollinate up to five female plants. The male will not develop berries. Plant the male and female holly plants within about 50 feet of each other, which is how far you’d expect pollinating insects to fly when foraging, says Hirvela.

The names of many cultivars, or cultivated varieties, usually indicate whether they are male or female, such as Mr. Poppins (male) and Berry Poppins (female), varieties of winter berry holly. It also takes several years for new plantings to bear fruit.

Ilex female flower

Stacey Hirvela / Proven Winners Color Choice Shrubs
ilex flower male

Ilex male flower

Stacey Hirvela/Proven Winners Color Choice Shrubs

If you don’t know if you have a male or female plant, inspect the flowers in mid to late spring. Male flowers have anthers with fuzzy, yellow pollen. Female flowers have a green berry in the center to trick insects into pollinating them, says Hirvela. You can then add the right type of plant to boost berry production.

Is holly poisonous to dogs and cats?

Unfortunately, according to the ASPCA, holly can be toxic to dogs and cats, causing vomiting and diarrhea if ingested. Keep your pet away from this plant and its berries. And if you suspect your pet has sniffed it, call your vet immediately. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!

Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Princess' (female)
Ilex x meserveae ‘Blue Princess’ (female)
Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Boy' (male)
Ilex x meserveae ‘Blue Boy’ (male)
Ilex verticillata 'Berry Poppins' (female)
Ilex verticillata ‘Berry Poppins’ (female)
Ilex verticillata 'Mr.  Poppins' (male)
Ilex verticillata ‘Mr. Poppins’ (male)

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