Magazine article American Forests

The Festive American Holly

Magazine article American Forests

The Festive American Holly

Article excerpt

The American holly has always played an important role in this country's culture. Even before European settiers arrived in North America, native Americans boiled American holly twigs with pine tops to produce a tea to cure coughs. Today evergreen leaves and red berries are synonymous with Christmas in the United States.

When the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts a week before Christmas in 1620, they saw American holly (Ilex opaca) in the nearby forest and no doubt were reminded of English holly (Ilex aquifolium), for centuries a symbol of Christmas in England and Europe.

Because American holly is native along the East Coast from Massachusetts to northern Florida, virtually all settlers in those first 100 years were able to continue their Christmas tradition in their new land. Since then American holly-- also called dune holly, white holly and, of course, Christmas holly-has been one of the East's more valuable and popular trees. In the early 20th century holly branches became

such a popular indoor Christmas decoration that vandals began stealing them from private landscapes. To preserve the landscape in Maryland and Delaware, where the native tree is prolific, laws were passed prohibiting the sale of fresh American holly.


American holly grows somewhat slowly, eventually reaching a height of 15 to 30 feet in an erect but compact pyramidal or columnar form. It's also not uncommon to see a tree grow nearly 50 feet tall. Branching from the trunk begins at ground level, but many home-- owners prefer to prune the lower limbs to give the plant a more tree-like appearance. Planted in the right conditions with proper care, hollies can live for 100 years or more. They typically spread from 8 to 15 feet in diameter, although spreads of 18 to 40 feet are not unheard of. Mature American hollies have a trunk 12 to 18 inches in diameter.

Stiff and prickly evergreen American holly leaves are a glossy medium green to olive green on the surface and lighter green on the underside. Their broadly indented margins show the distinctive prickly spines that are typical of most evergreen hollies-and dangerous to bare feet! Measuring 2 to 4 inches long and 1 to 1-1/2 inches wide, depending on the variety, the leaves are arranged alternately along the holly stems. They remain attached for three years and are then shed in the spring. Some varieties of American hollies have variegated leaves of cream and green.

Holly bark is light gray and smooth; twigs are graywhite. The wood is light and dense but not strong. It sands and turns easily and polishes to a fine luster.

American holly is diecious, meaning that both male and female plants are needed for fruit production. One male plant can provide pollen to three to eight female plants. It's possible to graft a male branch onto a female plant, thereby giving the plant its own built-in pollen source. I wonder why that isn't routinely done for home landscape plants; perhaps the shape of the tree is affected? If you know the answer, please e-mail

Flowering begins about the fourth or fifth year. American holly flowers are creamy-white and small, with four tiny petals. Male flowers grow in small clusters where the leaves join the stems. Female flowers are solitary or in smaller clusters than the male flowers. Males have four stamens sticking up between the petals; females have bulb-like structures in the center, with little stalks rising from them. The flowers of both sexes appear in late spring or early summer, and pollination occurs thanks to bees, wasps, ants, yellow jackets, and night-flying moths.

Stunning 1/4-inch red berries appear on female trees in mid-autumn on the current year's growth. A few varieties sport yellow berries. The berries hang on into early spring unless devoured by songbirds, bobwhite, deer, squirrels, or wild turkey. American holly trees are a major food source for winter-migrating flocks of small birds such as the cedar waxwing and American goldfinch, and stands of homes are an important fast food stop in their migrations. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.