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 hollies provide four-season interest, it’s during winter when they really shine. The brightly colored berries stand out like a beacon against the snow, adding exquisite beauty to the stark 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 Instructions | Holly Care | How to Choose the Right Holly | Holly Varieties | Holly 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 and berries:

Small, cup-shaped flowers bloom from spring to early summer and are most often creamy or white. Firm, rounded berries are produced in autumn, lasting through winter, and occurring in shades of red, orange, yellow, pink, blue, black, or white. 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 children and pets, it’s the attractive berries that are most often consumed. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and drowsiness. Children can become ill after ingesting just two or three berries. If your child or pet exhibits symptoms, contact your family physician, veterinarian, or local poison control. See more common poisonous plants.

TYPES

With more than 400 species, hollies are one of the most diverse groups of plants, and the only living family in their genus, Aquifoliaceae. 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), is invasive in lots of 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 some 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. 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 each type of holly.

Soil:

Hollies prefer loamy, well-draining soil that’s kept evenly moist, with an acidic pH between 5.0 and 6.0.

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. 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.

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 species are more resistant than others. Those with spiny leaves such as English holly tend to be left alone, as deer don’t like the sharp edges. Winterberry and inkberry are also less bothered. Those most susceptible to damage from deer grazing include blue holly and Japanese holly. 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
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Bloom time: Spring
Color: White flowers, green foliage, red berries

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

Photo 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
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Bloom time: Spring
Color: Dark green foliage, red new growth, white flowers, black berries

This boxwood look-alike with small oval leaves is suitable for hedging. Use this dwarf evergreen shrub as edging along a pathway or garden room, in mass plantings, or as a container accent in combination with other plants. Grown primarily for the foliage, the berries are inconspicuous and need a male plant to produce fruit. New leaf growth in spring has attractive red tips. Strongbox® is similar, with a slightly wider, more open habit.

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
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Bloom time: Spring
Color: Golden foliage with green undertones, white flowers

One of the smallest holly varieties, this evergreen shrub is grown for its attractive gold foliage. Use in patio containers, as edging along a pathway, at the front of a mixed border, in mass plantings, or as a rock garden specimen. Foliage is burn-resistant, with coloring that is more pronounced than other gold varieties.

Photo by: Proven Winners.

Sky Box® (syn. Sky Pointer®, ‘Farrowone’), Japanese Holly Buy now from Proven Winners
Ilex crenata

Zone: 6-8
Height/Spread: Upright columnar habit, 4-5 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Bloom time: Spring
Color: Dark green foliage, white flowers

Formerly grown as Sky Pointer®, this more robust seedling of ‘Sky Pencil’ 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 to the garden. Mass in a row as hedging or screening, plant a single specimen as a container accent or as a formal element in the landscape. Sky Box® maintains its columnar structure with little or no pruning; if necessary, lightly trim to shape in summer. Drought tolerant once established.

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
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Bloom time: Spring
Color: Green foliage, white flowers, red berries

Tolerant of wet conditions, this dwarf deciduous shrub may be planted in a bog or rain garden. In order to produce berries, site near a male pollinator such as Little Goblin® Guy. For a different look, try Little Goblin® Orange, which has bright pumpkin-colored berries. Suitable for small urban yards, this smaller selection is useful for mass plantings, containers and hedging.

Photo by: Proven Winners.

Berry Heavy® Gold (syn. ‘Roberta Case’), Winterberry Buy now from Proven Winners
Ilex verticillata

Zone: 3-9
Height/Spread: Upright bushy habit, 6 to 8 feet tall and wide
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Bloom time: Spring
Color: Green foliage, white flowers, yellow berries

One of the best gold varieties, Berry Heavy® Gold is named for its generous production of large bright yellow berries. The unusual coloring pairs well with orange or red varieties. Combine with a male pollinator such as Mr. Poppins® that will bloom at the same time. Grow this medium-sized deciduous shrub as hedging, screening or in a woodland setting.

Photo by Spring Meadow Nursery.

‘Densa’, Inkberry Holly
Ilex glabra

Zone: 5-9
Height/Spread: Upright, slightly tapered habit, 3 to 4 feet tall and wide
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Bloom time: Spring
Color: Dark green foliage, white flowers, black berries

The glossy fine leaves—reminiscent of boxwood—makes this a suitable choice for informal or sheared hedging. Grown primarily for the attractive evergreen foliage and upright structure, this female selection will produce black berries when paired with a male pollinator. Use to divide garden rooms, as hedging along a pathway or sidewalk, or in foundation plantings. ‘Densa’ is more compact and suckers less than the straight species.

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.
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Bloom time: Spring
Color: Green foliage, white flowers, red berries

Grown primarily for the finely textured leaves that are similar to boxwood, this dwarf variety tolerates pruning and shearing, making it a good choice as formal hedging. Mass as a ground cover along a slope for erosion control, use as screening between garden rooms, or as hedging along a pathway. Needs a male pollinator to bear fruit.

Photo by: Vahan Abrahamyan / Shutterstock

‘Argentea Marginata’, English Holly
Ilex aquifolium

Zone: 6-9
Height/Spread: Upright pyramidal habit, 15-50 feet tall and 8-12 feet wide
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Bloom time: Spring
Color: Green foliage variegated with creamy white margins, white flowers, red berries

This evergreen tree or shrub is revered for its shiny variegated foliage and bright red berries. Plant near a male pollinator in order to set fruit. Grow a small specimen in a container. Use as a focal point in the landscape, as a privacy hedge or foundation planting. Shrubs can be trained into small trees by removing the lower side branches. The cultivar 'Aureo Marginata' has yellow-edged leaves.

Photo by: Proven Winners

Castle Spire® (syn. ‘Hachfee’), Blue Holly Buy now from Proven Winners
Ilex x meserveae

Zone: 5-7
Height/Spread: Upright tapered habit, 6-10 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Bloom time: Spring
Color: Dark blue-green foliage, white flowers, red berries

This evergreen shrub has thick glossy leaves with spiny edges. The narrow pyramidal shape, dark foliage and red berries look especially picturesque with a fresh blanket of snow. Plants can be lightly sheared into formal Christmas tree forms. Grow as hedging or screening, or use as a foundation plant or landscape accent that can be decorated with holiday lights. Plant near a male pollinator such as Castle Wall® in order to set fruit.

Photo by: Proven Winners

‘Blue Princess’, Blue Holly
Ilex x meserveae

Zone: 5-9
Height/Spread: Upright bushy habit, 8-15 feet tall and 6-10 feet wide.
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Bloom time: Spring
Color: Dark blue-green foliage, purple stems, white flowers, red berries

Showy bright red fruits stand out against a backdrop of spiny blue-green foliage. Plants can be left to grow naturally or sheared into formal shapes and topiaries. Sheared plants will produce fewer berries. Grow this medium-sized evergreen shrub along a bank for erosion control, as hedging or in a foundation planting. This variety 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.
  • Use a shrub type that is suitable to be trained into a tree for a unique focal point along your house or out in the landscape.
  • 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.
  • Use a medium-sized evergreen type with colored foliage or berries as a hedge or privacy screen along a property line.

RELATED:
Shrubs 101
Evergreen Shrubs for All-Season Interest

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