The Many Holly Varieties and How to Use Them

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Perched amid the red and green of a holly tree, a male Cardinal is right at home.
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Hollies are versatile plants that range in height from 1 foot to 70 feet and typically grow in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5 to 9.

Glossy green leaves, brilliant crimson berries, dense growth habit, and branches that are beautiful in floral arrangements mean that holly is welcome on many homesteads. Hollies are versatile plants that range in height from 1 foot to 70 feet and typically grow in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5 to 9. You also can find hollies that thrive in Zones 3 to 11, as this is a rare plant genus that can be grown in all 50 states.

More than 400 holly varieties grow worldwide. Widely grown hollies include American hollies (Ilex opaca), English hollies (Ilex aquifolium), Yaupon hollies (Ilex vomitoria), and Japanese hollies (Ilex crenata). You can grow holly for privacy fences, clipped hedges, foliage along house foundations, and tall, handsome garden specimen trees. Once your trees are large enough, you could cut branches with berries and sell them at farmers’ markets or to florists during the holiday season.

Specimen holly

Specimen plants are usually tall and can stand alone as a focal plant. A popular specimen holly is the Highclere (Ilex x altaclerensis), which reaches 20 to 30 feet in a handsome pyramid shape, is cold tolerant and has large red berries. The cultivar Ilex aquifolium ‘Rubricaulis Aurea’ is an English holly with variegated leaves. One of the finest fruiting hollies that can be grown as a specimen tree is the American holly Ilex opaca ‘Old Heavy Berry,’ which grows 30 to 40 feet and has masses of brick-red berries.

Foundation holly

For foundation planting next to your house, blue holly hybrids (Ilex x meserveae) are easily pruned and are hardy in Zones 5 to 8. Blue Maid has red fruit and Golden Girl has yellow fruit. Blue Princess is one of the best berry producers with dark red berries that contrast with the lustrous bluish-green foliage. Use Blue Prince to pollinate, and these grow to 12 to 15 feet tall, so they are perfect to plant at the corners of your home or as a group of specimen trees.

Hedge holly

Hollies are ideal for creating privacy hedges, since many of them have dense foliage and form and are easily pruned.

Dragon Lady reaches 15 feet and is widely used as a hedge. The Japanese holly is an excellent choice for thick hedges that will reach 16 feet, with berries usually black and occasionally white or yellow, Zones 6 to 9, usually cold-hardy to Zone 7 with some cultivars hardy to Zone 6.

Yaupon holly is an evergreen and native to the Southeast, including Texas, and suited to Zones 7 to 9. Most Yaupon hollies are ideal for dense hedges and are drought and salt tolerant, with varieties that have red or yellow berries. The Yaupon holly Ilex vomitoria ‘Folsom’s Weeping’ reaches 15 feet and can be sheered for tall hedges or stand alone as a graceful weeping specimen tree. Folsom’s Weeping has red berries and grows in Zones 7 to 10.

Hollies noted for berries

For most hollies, only the female plant provides berries, with flowers in late spring to early summer, and red berries from autumn to March, which birds, including robins, cedar waxwings, cardinals, northern mockingbirds and goldfinches, love to eat. To optimize berry production, plant a female and a male holly of the same species that flower at the same time within 40 feet of each other. Holly grows best in sun. It will grow in shade, but will provide more berries in full sun. Most holly berries are red, but you also can find varieties with yellow, orange or black berries.

An excellent holly to plant is Ilex opaca ‘Satyr Hill,’ winner of Holly Society of America’s 2003 Holly of the Year, with large, dark olive-green leaves and bright red berries that last all winter to provide help for songbirds. Old Heavy Berry is noted for its berry production. For a holly that grows in conical form to 10 feet tall and is densely berried, plant Red Beauty, which was developed to thrive in East Coast garden conditions, and has grown even in Zone 3. For heavy fruit production, plant a compatible male holly from the meserveae group. Blue Prince is an excellent pollinator. All grow in Zones 5 to 9.

In winter you can create elegant bouquets with holly branches in large vases, or for a holiday display, arrange the branches on a mantel. First lay plastic on the mantel to protect it, then place holly clippings on it, with your favorite candles, angel or Santa figures holding the clippings in place. Red, gold or silver bows, jingle bells, candy canes and pine cones all add a festive touch.

For the holiday season, it’s also fun to make a mistletoe holder by poking holly tips in a potato. First wrap the potato with wire and create a wire loop at the top so you can hang it. Then completely cover the potato with holly tips and add a sprig of mistletoe at the bottom. It’s the perfect way to deck your halls with boughs of holly.


Holly Society of America
A site with information about selecting and growing holly and suggested places to purchase holly. They select a Holly of the Year and, for 2011, the winner is Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens,’ hardy to Zone 6b, orange-red fruit, and grows to height of 20 to 30 feet.

Hollies: The Genus Ilex
by Fred C. Galle
Timber Press in association with the Holly Society of America, 1997. Its 573 pages describe many of the species of holly, with information on harvesting and handling cut holly branches.

Sources for holly plants

The Nursery at TyTy
They have 17 hollies for sale including Weeping Yaupon and shrub Yaupon.

White Flower Farm
Sells several holly varieties.

Nature Hills Nursery
Sells more than a dozen hollies including Castle Spire and Sky Pencil.