American Holly Tree (Ilex opaca)

Holly berries and leaves on a American Holly Tree.

When you go for a walk in our local forests, you’re sure to see a medium tall evergreen tree in the understory. Thick, and slightly pyramidal in shape, the American Holly, Ilex opaca, provides shelter year-round, food for birds and pollinators and decorations for our houses — and is beautiful.

Reaching anywhere from 20 to 40 feet in height, our native holly tree’s native habitat (its natural home) is moist woods, bottomlands and swamp edges so we can figure that it prefers part shade with moist acidic soil. It does not like to stay wet, and needs some drainage. The leaves will turn a little yellow if the soil isn’t acidic. Our sandy soil here is fine for it; you shouldn’t need to amend it since it’s not picky, but it would like some mulch or preferably compost used as mulch to keep the roots cool. It takes a medium amount of water, and will tolerate some drought once it’s established. Like many broad-leaved evergreens, it would appreciate some protection from those cold winter winds. It is somewhat salt-tolerant, growing near the beach and in areas sometimes flooded by brackish (slightly salty) water.

The species name opaca comes from the fact that its leaves are not glossy; they are a medium dark green with the holly spines around the edges. They are somewhat leathery with a slight waxy coating which protects them from salt and drought. Like all hollies, the leaves are spaced alternately, not opposite each other, on the stems.

The tree is upright and symmetrical, perfect for a formal area, pyramidal to oval shaped with smooth, light grey bark and stiff branches. It grows pretty slowly. It has small white flowers in spring, but what makes it stand out are the beautiful bright red berries in the late fall and winter on the female plants. Like all hollies, the tree is dioecious — there are male and female trees.

There are enough trees in the area that you shouldn’t have to worry about planting a male though, there’s one around. There are a number of cultivars (cultivated varieties, varieties bred for certain characteristics) including Maryland Dwarf, a female variety (it has berries), which only grows to three feet tall, but will eventually spread to 8 feet wide.

Pollinators love the flowers, birds love the berries, and the tree itself provides valuable cover and shelter for birds and mammals — this is a must-have tree for wildlife gardens. It is beautiful as a specimen, great massed. It’s a good foundation plant, and perfect for a winter garden. Get one today!