Castle Spire® Blue Holly. Photo by Proven Winners.

Holly is most commonly associated with the Christmas season, the branches and berries a favorite component of holiday decorations. Though holly shrubs provide four-season interest, it’s during winter when they really shine. The brightly colored berries stand out against the snow, adding beauty to the winter landscape.

With so many forms and sizes to choose from, there’s a variety suitable for every landscape need, from containers to mass plantings. Most garden cultivars are tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions, making them an invaluable addition to any yard.

On this page: Basics | Types | Planting | Care | How to Choose the Right Holly | Varieties | Landscaping Tips

BASICS

Type:

Tree, shrub, or vine

Zones:

3-10, depending on variety

Height/Spread:

Upright, mounding, spreading, columnar, pyramidal, or weeping habit, 1-1/2 to 80 feet tall and 1-1/2 to 50 feet wide

Exposure:

Full sun to partial shade; berries are most prolific in full sun.

Bloom time:

Spring to early summer

Foliage:

Evergreen or deciduous foliage occurs in shades of green, blue-green, gold, or variegated. Leaves are oval or elongated, from 1/2 inch to several inches long, ranging from thick, leathery forms with spiny margins, to tiny, smooth leaves that resemble boxwood.

Flowers:

Small, cup-shaped flowers bloom from spring to early summer and are most often creamy or white.

Berries:

Firm, rounded, berries in shades of red, orange, yellow, pink, blue, black, or white are produced in autumn and last through winter. The fruit is a source of food for songbirds and other wildlife.

Do all holly plants produce berries?

Nearly all varieties are dioecious, with male and female flowers occurring on separate plants. This means that female plants, which produce berries, need to be sited near a male pollinator in order to bear fruit. One male is sufficient to pollinate 5 to 20 females, and should be sited within 50 feet of female plants. It’s essential that plants bloom at the same time, so many cultivars are sold as male and female counterparts such as ‘Blue Prince’ and ‘Blue Princess’.

Toxicity:

Holly contains saponins, which are mildly to moderately toxic if ingested. While all parts of the plants are poisonous to people and pets, it’s the attractive berries that are most often consumed. See more common poisonous plants.

2020 Landscape Shrub of the Year:

Gem Box® Inkberry holly.

TYPES

With more than 400 species, hollies are one of the most diverse groups of plants. This tree, shrub, or woody vine—which can be deciduous or evergreen—is native to tropical and temperate zones across the globe.

There are 6 main types of holly:

  • Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
  • Inkberry (Ilex glabra)
  • Japanese holly (Ilex crenata)
  • Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria)
  • English holly (Ilex aquifolium), invasive in many places
  • Blue holly (Ilex x meserveae)

Learn more about the different types of holly bushes.

PLANTING INSTRUCTIONS

When to plant:

Plant during milder months of spring or fall to avoid heat or cold stress.

Where to plant:

Choose a sunny to lightly shaded site with fertile, well-draining soil that will stay evenly moist.

How to plant:

Dig a hole 2 to 3 times wider than the root ball and not quite as deep. Remove plant from container and gently tease out roots or slice the root ball in several places if potbound. Mix compost into the planting hole. If soil pH is alkaline or neutral, add bark, wood chips, or peat moss to the backfill to increase acidity. Place the plant in the hole so the top of the root ball is slightly above or level with the soil surface. Fill in the hole, tamp down soil around the base, and water well. Mulch with 2 to 3 inches of organic matter to conserve moisture and suppress weeds, but not not cover the top of the rootball.

Plant spacing:

Depends on the variety.

HOLLY CARE

Pruning:

Hollies look best when allowed to retain their natural shape and size, though some types lend themselves to shearing into formal hedging. Pruning needs vary according to species and type. See more on how to prune holly.

Soil:

Hollies prefer loamy, well-draining soil that’s kept evenly moist, with an acidic pH between 5.0 and 6.0. Alkaline soil can cause yellowing of the leaves. To increase soil acidity, add aluminum sulfate or mulch around plants with peat moss or pine needles.

Amendments & fertilizer:

Use a slow-release fertilizer that is formulated for acid-loving broadleaf evergreen shrubs such as camellias and rhododendrons. Some manufacturers produce fertilizers specifically for hollies. Apply in spring and again in fall according to package instructions.

Watering:

Most hollies perform best with a moderate amount of water to keep soil evenly moist. Irrigate thoroughly once or twice a week during dry or hot spells in summer.

Diseases and pests:

When planted in optimal conditions, hollies are generally free of major problems. Possible diseases include root rot, leaf spot, leaf rot, tar spot, canker, and powdery mildew. Insect pests include holly leaf miner, bud moth, nematodes, spider mites, white fly, or scale.

Deer resistance:

Holly is often listed as deer resistant, but some are more resistant than others. Those with spiny leaves tend to be left alone. Winterberry and inkberry are also less bothered; while blue holly and Japanese holly are more susceptible to grazing. See more deer-resistant plants.

HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT HOLLY

It’s crucial to choose holly varieties that will not outgrow the space they’re planted in. The exception being cultivars that are grown primarily for foliage, which can be kept sheared to size. Here are some tips to consider when selecting hollies for your yard:

For borders and landscapes:

Choose varieties that will fit the scale of your landscape. Use as hedging, screening, in a mixed border, as foundation plantings, in naturescaping, or a stand-alone focal point. Allow room for plants to mature without becoming crowded.

For slopes and hillsides:

Select groundcover or dwarf varieties suitable to the size of your property and mass along a slope or hillside for erosion control.

For containers:

Dwarf types will stay smaller and are less likely to overwhelm a space. Plant in a medium to large container and combine with small perennials, ornamental grasses, or groundcovers for year-round interest.

HOLLY VARIETIES

Swipe to view slides

Photo by: Proven Winners.

Berry Poppins®, Winterberry Buy now from Proven Winners
Ilex verticillata

Zone: 3-9
Height/Spread: Upright vase-shaped habit, 3-4 feet tall and wide
Color: White flowers, green foliage, red berries

This dwarf deciduous shrub produces lots of bright red berries that hold on through the winter. Combine with a male pollinator such as Mr. Poppins® winterberry in order to set fruit. A good choice for small urban yards. Use as a foundation planting, massed along a slope, as hedging or screening.

2020 Landscape Shrub of the YearPhoto by: Proven Winners.

Gem Box®, Inkberry Holly Buy now from Proven Winners
Ilex glabra

Zone: 5-9
Height/Spread: Compact rounded habit, 2-3 feet tall and wide
Color: Dark green leaves, red-tipped new growth, white flowers, black berries

A boxwood look-alike suitable for hedging. Grown primarily for the foliage, the berries are inconspicuous and need a male plant to produce fruit. Use this dwarf evergreen as edging along a pathway or garden room, in mass plantings, or as a container accent.

Photo by: Proven Winners.

Brass Buckle®, Japanese HollyBuy now from Proven Winners
Ilex crenata

Zone: 6-8
Height/Spread: Dwarf compact habit, 12-18 inches tall and wide
Color: Golden foliage with green undertones, white flowers

One of the smallest hollies, this evergreen shrub is grown for its attractive gold foliage. Use in patio containers, as edging, in borders, mass plantings, or rock gardens. Foliage is burn-resistant.

Photo by: Proven Winners.

Sky Box®, Japanese Holly Buy now from Proven Winners
Ilex crenata

Zone: 6-8
Height/Spread: Upright columnar habit, 4-5 feet tall, 2-3 feet wide
Color: Dark green foliage, white flowers

Formerly grown as Sky Pointer® and can be grown as an alternative to upright forms of boxwood. The shiny dark evergreen foliage and narrow columnar habit adds unique year-round interest. Mass in a row as hedging or screening or use as a container accent. Maintains its columnar structure with little or no pruning.

Photo by: Proven Winners.

Little Goblin® Red, Winterberry Buy now from Proven Winners
Ilex verticillata

Zone: 3-9
Height/Spread: Upright dwarf habit, 3 to 5 feet tall and wide
Color: Green foliage, white flowers, red berries

Tolerant of wet conditions, this dwarf deciduous shrub may be planted in a bog or rain garden. Site near a male pollinator such as Little Goblin® Guy for berries. Suitable for small urban yards, mass plantings, containers, and hedging.

Try Little Goblin® Orange, which has pumpkin-colored berries.

Photo by: Proven Winners.

Berry Heavy® Gold, Winterberry Buy now from Proven Winners
Ilex verticillata

Zone: 3-9
Height/Spread: Upright bushy habit, 6 to 8 feet tall and wide
Color: Green foliage, white flowers, yellow berries

One of the best gold varieties, named for its abundance of large bright yellow berries, pairs well with orange or red varieties. Combine with a male pollinator such as Mr. Poppins®. Grow this medium-sized deciduous shrub as hedging, screening, or in a woodland setting.

Photo by: Proven Winners

Castle Spire®, Blue Holly Buy now from Proven Winners
Ilex x meserveae

Zone: 5-7
Height/Spread: Upright tapered habit, 6-10 feet tall, 3-4 feet wide
Color: Dark blue-green foliage, white flowers, red berries

Evergreen shrub with thick glossy leaves with spiny edges. The narrow pyramidal shape, dark foliage, and red berries look especially picturesque in fresh snow. Can be lightly sheared into Christmas tree form. Grow as hedging, screening, use as a foundation plant, or landscape accent. Plant near a male pollinator such as Castle Wall® to set fruit.

Photo by Spring Meadow Nursery.

‘Nana’, Yaupon Holly
Ilex vomitoria

Zone: 7-10
Height/Spread: Mounding spreading habit, 2 to 5 feet tall and 3-5 feet wide.
Color: Green foliage, white flowers, red berries

Grown primarily for finely textured leaves similar to boxwood, this dwarf variety tolerates pruning and shearing. A good choice as formal hedging, ground cover along a slope, or screening between garden rooms. Needs a male pollinator to bear fruit.

Photo by: Proven Winners

‘Blue Princess’, Blue Holly
Ilex x meserveae

Zone: 5-9
Height/Spread: Upright bushy habit, 8-15 feet tall, 6-10 feet wide.
Color: Dark blue-green foliage, purple stems, white flowers, red berries

Showy red fruits stand out against spiny blue-green foliage. Can be left to grow naturally or sheared into formal shapes. Sheared plants will produce fewer berries. Grow this evergreen along a slope, as hedging, or in foundation planting. Produces an abundance of fruit when sited near a male pollinator such as ‘Blue Prince’.

HOLLY LANDSCAPING TIPS

There are many ways to incorporate holly into your landscape. Here’s how:

  • Combine a small or medium-sized evergreen type with other evergreen shrubs along the front of your home. Decorate the shrubs with holiday lights for the whole neighborhood to enjoy.
  • Place a colorful ceramic container near your home’s entryway and plant with a smaller specimen. Add decorations and small twinkling lights for a festive look.
  • Plant a dwarf type as a hedge along a pathway and keep it sheared to create formal structure in transition areas.
  • Naturalize evergreen or deciduous forms with especially showy berries in a woodland border that can be enjoyed from a cozy window inside your home. Add other plants with winter interest such as witch hazel and hellebores for an inspiring view that will help stave off the winter blues.
  • Mass a dwarf or groundcover type along a bank or slope for erosion control.
  • If you plan on regularly using the berries and branches for holiday decorating, make sure that plants are easily accessible for harvesting. Choose a site close to your home or driveway that won’t be blocked by snow.

Last updated: November 6, 2020

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