One of the most iconic winter plants, the glossy green leaves of the holly, with their fine serrated edges or spiny teeth, and colorful berries are instantly identifiable. But did you know that there are numerous types of holly bushes?
A reliable evergreen, all types of holly bushes and trees belong to the Ilex genus. This comprises over 480 deciduous and evergreen plants including shrubs, trees and climbing types. Most of these plants are native to a range of temperate and tropical areas.
Ilex plants are reliable full sun or shade shrubs, providing long lasting, year round color and texture to the garden. Further adding to the attraction, in the spring flowers form while in the fall berries or fruits in a range of colors, including red, white, pink, black and yellow develop. As well as adding color to stark winter gardens these berries also provide a valuable source of food for garden birds and wildlife.
Ilex plants are instantly recognizable thanks to their prickly leaves and bright red berries. Source:
A popular Christmas decoration since ancient times, holly bushes have been seen as a symbol of hope and rebirth. The druids considered the Ilex to be a sacred plant because it flowered and produced fruit during the darkest winter months long after other plants had died away.
It was during these ancient times that the boughs and branches were first used to decorate homes. Initially seen as a way to protect the home from evil spirits, the practice of using evergreen Ilex plants to decorate the home during the winter was adopted by early Chrisitans and soon became a key part of Christmas decorations.
Today many types of holly bushes remain a popular low maintenance evergreen shrub, whether in the home or garden. A versatile plant, many types respond well to regular pruning or topiary shaping.
The following plants are some of the most attractive and versatile specimens currently available. Many can be used to create living fences, privacy screens or as specimen plants, providing color and texture long after other plants have faded for the year.
1 American Holly
American Holly (Ilex Opaca) bushes are native to South, Central and Eastern parts of the United States. The plants can also be found in southeastern Missouri and eastern parts of Texas. A reliable alternative to the English cultivar for use in Christmas decorations, these attractive evergreens are hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 9.
Capable of growing up to 50 ft tall, American cultivars are identified by their pyramidal shape and yellow-green foliage. The leaves are typically stiff and shiny on the top. The underside is a dull matte green color.
Similar in appearance to English types of holly bushes, American cultivars set small, green-white flowers and red berries. Also known as the Hummock or Scrub plant, like many other types of holly buses the plants are dioecious, meaning that they are either male or female.
American cultivars produce glossy, stiff leaves.
There are a number of American cultivars including Croonenburg which is self-pollinating and Canary, a yellow fruiting variety.
2 Blue Princess
One of the female types of holly bushes, Blue Princess (Ilex x meserveae) is part of the blue ilex group. Blue Princess requires pollination by its male counterpart, Blue Prince before bright red berries form. These berries contrast nicely with the glossy, dark green foliage meaning that Blue Princess is commonly used for holiday decorations. Upon closer inspection you will notice that the dark green leaves have a blue hue.
The white flowers of Blue Princess.
Best planted in moist, well draining soil and full or partial sun. Blue Princess grows to a height of 10 to 15 ft and can spread up to 10 ft wide.
Carolina, also known as Sand ilex (Ilex ambigua), is native to South Central and Southeastern parts of the United States. It can be seen growing on the coastal plains that reach from Texas to North Carolina. In addition to the green foliage and bright red fruit the branches of Carolina have an attraction of their own. Typically black or dark brown in color, the bark tends to flake away as the plant ages.
Ilex ambigua is characterized by smoother leaves and red berries.
One of the deciduous types of holly bushes, Carolina thrives in light, sandy soils. Growing to a height of 15 to 20 ft tall in sunny spots this is a pleasingly drought tolerant specimen when established. Carolina plants are hardy in USDA Zones 7 to 9.
One of the more attractive types of holly bushes, the perennial Catberry (Ilex Mucronata) plant was once known as Nemopanthus mucronatus. Today it is classified as part of the Ilex genus.
Thriving in moist soil, like Long Stalk, Catberry cultivars produce red berries on the end of long stems known as peduncles. The berries provide a valuable source of food for migratory or garden birds. Also known as Mountain ilex, Catberry can reach a height of 6 to 10 ft. Hardy in USDA Zones 4 and warmer the plants are native to many eastern parts of North America.
Catberry berries sit on stems above the green foliage.
The Chinese or Horned holly (Ilex cornuta) is a reliable evergreen shrub that is native to parts of China and Korea. Growing to a height of 15 ft, Chinese leaves can be rectangular in shape with 3 lobes sticking up. These have horn-like spines, hence the alternative name of horned ilex. A broadleaf evergreen plant, the plant’s bright red berries contrast nicely with the lush dark green foliage. Before berries form, small white-green flowers emerge in late March and early April.
The spiky, horn-like foliage of the Ilex cornuta.
Chinese cultivars are best planted in partial shade. They also tolerate full sun as long as the soil is well draining and the plants are watered regularly. Once established, Chinese types of holly bushes are ideal for planting as part of a drought tolerant landscape. Most cultivars are hardy in USDA Zones 7 to 9.
6 Common Winterberry
The Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), also known as Michicgan or Canada ilex, Fever Bush or Black Adler is native to parts of Canada as well as Eastern and Central parts of the United States. Unlike many types of holly bushes, the Common Winterberry is not evergreen. Instead, at the first frosts the purple green foliage turns black before falling from the plants.
A deciduous multi-stemmed shrub with an upright spreading growth habit, Common Winterberry reaches can achieve a height and spread of 3 to 15 ft. As the leaves fall, the smooth dark gray or brown bark is revealed.
Similar in appearance to other members of the Ilex genus, Winterberry sheds its leaves in the fall.
Common Winterberry is often found growing on the edge of woodland or swamps. A good choice for native planting schemes, Common Winterberry can also be used in shrubby borders or in mass planting schemes. The scarlet berries add a vibrant pop of color to the winter landscape. Common Winterberry is hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 9.
Dahoon (Ilex Cassine) is naturally found growing in the swampy areas of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Bahamas. The plants are also commonly seed along the southeastern coast of North America. Identified by the glossy, dark green spiny foliage, this is a popular evergreen ornamental plant.
Plant both a male and female cultivar if you want bright red berries to form. Like other types of holly bushes, Dahoon boughs are a good choice for creating your own Christmas decorations.
The bright red berries make Dahoon, like other varieties, a popular choice for making Christmas decorations.
Ideal for planting in the wet areas of your garden there are 3 recognized varieties of Dahoon:
- Ilex cassine var cassine,
- Ilex cassine var angustifolia,
- Ilex cassine var mexicana.
All three are hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 10 and typically grow to a height of 20 to 40 ft. The myrtle-leaved ilex is also a variety of Ilex Cassine according to some botanists.
The English (Ilex aquifolium) is one of the most popular evergreen types of holly bushes. A tall evergreen plant with glossy leathery foliage, this plant is also known as Christmas Holly because it is commonly used to make Christmas decorations.
Growing to a height of 15 to 50 ft, these plants are hardy in USDA Zones 7 to 9. Best planted in full sun positions, English cultivars also grow in partial sun, with a little extra care.
Native to the British Isles as well as parts of Central and Southern Europe the plants can be crossed with Tsuru cultivars to produce Blue or Meserve hollies. In addition to rich green foliage and red berries, in the spring fragrant flowers in shades of red, orange and yellow form.
Easy to identify, Ilex aquifolium produces bright red berries and spiky leaves.
One of the most popular English ilex cultivars is the Hedgehog plant (Ilex aquifolium Ferox Argentea). Native to Europe, the Hedgehog plant produces spiky foliage which is similar to a pincushion. The small, oval green leaves are decorated with white or butter-yellow patterns and sharp spines.
Finetooth is one of the few deciduous types of holly bushes that tolerates cold weather. Native to parts of China and Japan, Finetooth grows to a height of 6 to 15 ft. Similar in appearance to Winterberry, the two plants are often confused. One key difference is that Finetooth berries are usually smaller than Winterberries.
In some areas the plants grow as semi-evergreens, retaining some of their foliage during the winter months. Like other types of holly bushes, if pollinated, bright glossy red berries form.
Some Finetooth cultivars such as Sundrops produce yellow berries. Sparkleberry is a red berry producing hybrid plant which is a cross between Finetooth and Common Winterberry.
Finetooth is a productive specimen that tolerates cold weather.
As the name suggests, Hawaiian types of holly bushes (Ilex anomala) are native to the Hawaiian islands. Here the plants grow in wet forests as well as mixed mesic areas. Typically shrubby plants, Hawaiian cultivars can reach a height of 30 to 40 ft. Happy to grow in either full or partial sun, these are amongst the longest lasting types of holly bushes.
Like many Ilex cultivars, the flowers are popular with butterflies and pollinators.
Ilex anomala foliage is typically dark green and glossy with a blunt tip. The underside of the leaves tends to be paler and less glossy. In the spring and early summer clusters of white flowers with green centers form. If pollinated, purple-black fruit, similar to Inkberry fruit, forms. Hawaiian types of holly bushes are hardy in USDA Zones 11 and 12.
Inkberry is one of the most distinctive types of holly bushes. Most cultivars produce dark purple or black fruit which sit amongst the plant’s dark oval green leaves. Some cultivars, such as Ivory Queen, produce white berries.
Further adding to the attraction, unlike other types of holly bushes Inkberry leaves are spine free. Sometimes called winterberry, Inkberry plants are native to eastern and south-central parts of the United States. Hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 9, the plants can grow up to 8 ft tall.
Inkberry produces inky colored berries. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pondapple/48903890103/in/photolist-2hvtdK2-kM6Pz-n7LZTr-4VnU2-4VnTZ-aJchhZ-24kBRgr-86Vumw-5ws9jq-4aCe3D-7mAVZE-aMLvZZ-7mAR5o-dVx4rd-7mARAC-7mAVCw-aMLxvZ-dVx4TU-7mAJSy-5LmfUw-5Lndkm-odjZnR-5Lnc1m-z1gpC-aMLBRP-aMLz9t-aMLt34-7mwPBx-4aCgeD-aMLukM-7whqUM-cQXtqE-9WbUhE-9nuXEY-dVruoZ-7wmdN7-c3vxto-7wmdth-vobc1-7KqRTU-4aCfbr-aXhAqx-7KmVor-qrHFXP-qrGo6F-qJ98jp-24fW17g-qrz74y-qJ53E9-qJ99yZ
Spreading by setting out suckers, if these are regularly pruned away Inkberry (Ilex glabra) can become invasive. Despite this it remains a popular evergreen, providing color to the fall or winter garden.
Japanese types of holly bushes, sometimes incorrectly called Sky Pencil, which is actually one of its cultivars, is one of the most dramatic types of holly bushes. Ilex crenata can spread 2 ft in width and grow up to 10 ft tall. Hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 8.
A good choice for a living fence, the plants are sometimes known as Box-Leaved ilex because the foliage is similar in appearance to that of a boxwood shrub. The soft textured foliage compliments the black fruit. Japanese cultivars are not as attractive to wildlife as other types of holly bushes.
Ilex crenata is popular for its round box-like form. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/superfantastic/29974338554/in/photolist-MEJjyA-2hPQQpy-cJsjbs-7YxnuD-28p8rNf-czuDC9-gzQEP-2hPQQBT-8oopx5-PxxkAk-AHyGEU-bFE31B-kwWUqr-2hPQQyS-MmQg1d-3HnXc-MmQh3U-3HnSS-gK1yso-RmddkU-MmQguu-8oAfbD-7YxnrF-i5vfyh-GaNRSL-SacecC-Sacefo-cv6BEw-29qi7NA-puwC29-Sacebf-29qi8nG-2oujMc-26JHyKb-MmQhCS-SCNz1E-2hPTr6w-i8uHM9-pf1W1U-MmQeMS-MmQex3-oExvWN-oMgdQw-2h3EMKj-8tpgmt-oMf8iH-p4HqJh-4AEBky-2h3E6sQ-2hPTrnd
Compacta is a neat cultivar with an attractive glove-shaped appearance. Another reliable cultivar is Golden Gem. This is popular for its attractive, variegated foliage.
Longstalk (Ilex pedunculosa) is so called because the berries sit on the end of long stalks or pendicules protruding from amongst the leaves. This gives Longstalk a unique appearance when compared to other types of holly bushes. Before the berries set, white flowers form. These are particularly popular with butterflies and pollinators.
A good choice to add color to gardens in fall and winter, Longstalk is also a good choice for urban locations because it tolerates pollution and salt. Growing to a height of between 10 and 30 ft, larger cultivars require spacing of at least 20 ft between plants. Hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 8, Longstalk is native to parts of China, Japan and Taiwan.
Longstalk berries sit on long stalks above the foliage.
Lusterleaf (Ilex latifolia) is one of the most attractive types of holly bushes. Resembling a magnolia, this is a large pyramidal evergreen shrub. Lusterleaf typically produces glossy, large dark green leaves. During the summer months yellow-green flowers emerge. These are replaced by dense clusters of orange-red berries that are darker than other types of holly berries.
A great background or specimen plant, Lusterleaf does well in the shade. Growing to a height of 10 to 20 ft and spreading 10 to 15 ft wide, Lusterleaf plants are typically hardy in USDA Zones 7 to 9.
In China, Lusterleaf leaves are brewed to make tea.
Glossy foliage makes Lusterleaf a popular cultivar.
Yaupon is one of the best drought tolerant types of holly bushes. Native to the southeastern United States, Yaupon is also known as evergreen, Indian black drink or christmas cherry. As the name Indian black drink suggests, the berries of the Yaupon plant were used by Native Americans in ceremonial drinks.
Yaupon foliage can seem smoother than other cultivars.
Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) is a small shrub which is classed as evergreen and hardy in USDA Zones 7 to 9. Growing to a height of between 4 and 30 ft and spreading between 8 and 12 ft wide, once established Yaupon is a drought tolerant specimen.
Best planted in rich, well draining soil and full sun, it is a great choice to create informal hedging or screening. Yaupon also tolerates salt well making it a good choice for planting in coastal areas.
Yaupon, like other types of holly bushes, produces glossy oval shaped green leaves with finely toothed edges and red berries.
Male and Female Types of Holly Bushes
Most types of holly bushes are dioecious. This means that they produce either male or female flowers. Consequently, if you want the female plant to produce berries, you will need to plant both a male and female specimen.
Increasing numbers of garden stores sell self-pollinating ilex plants, such as Royal Family (Ilex x meserveae Blue Prince and Blue Princess) or China Dynasty (Ilex x meserveae China Boy and China Girl). Often these are not truly self-pollinating plants but simply a male and female ilex plant in the same container. This practice eliminates the need to purchase a second plant and ensures that your chosen specimen will produce berries.
Ilex plants are either male or female. You may need to plant both if you want berries to form.
How to Tell Male and Female Ilex Plants Apart
To tell the difference between male and female specimens you will need to look closely at the flowers. While both male and female types produce blooms with four petals, there is one key difference.
Male flowers typically produce 4 stamens. These support the anthers, or pollen sacks, and container yellow, sticky pollen.
In the center of the female flower will appear to be a green berry. This contains the pollen receptor. If the flower is successfully pollinated the female flower sheds its petals, allowing a berry to develop.
Male and Female Combinations
Many female holly bushes have more than one good partner plant. For example while Blue Prince is often paired with Blue Princess, it can also be used to pollinate Dragon Lady and Blue Maid.
Other good partners include the Southern Gentleman which pollinates both Sparkleberry and Winter Red and Little Goblin Guy. This is a reliable partner for both Little Goblin Orange and Little Goblin Red.
If the plant information label doesn’t highlight good partner plants, ask at your local garden store. They, along with plant nurseries, often sell suitable plants together.
Some types of holly bushes are self-fertile meaning that they need no partner. These are ideal if space is at a premium and you only have room for one plant.
Nellie R Stevens is a reliable self-pollinating or parthenocarpic cultivar. This is a cross between I. cornuta and I. aquifolium. Another popular choice is J.C.Van Tol.
Warning all berries are somewhat toxic if eaten.
Planting and Care Tips
One of the most attractive and interesting long lasting garden plants, all types of holly bushes provide year round color, texture and interest in the form of attractive foliage, flowers and, in some cases, berries.
These are also versatile plants. Many specimens can be cultivated as free standing focal points in pots or as part of a privacy screen or hedge. Not all types of holly bushes grow into large shrubs or trees. Some such as the Hedgehog cultivar are both small and slow growing.
Finally, as well as adding interest to the garden, the branches of most types of holly bushes can be cut and turned into Christmas decorations and wreaths.
How to Plant Ilex
Most types of holly bushes are best positioned in full sun. They also grow well in dappled shade. Like many other plants, Ilex specimens struggle if they do not get enough light.
The soil you plant in should be evenly moist and well draining. As long as these two requirements are met, the plants happily grow in all but the most difficult soil types. Prior to planting, enrich the soil by working in lots of organic matter such as compost. This not only improves drainage but also gives the newly planted specimens a nutritional boost, helping them to quickly settle into their new position.
All types of holly bushes are best planted in the fall, winter or spring. Remember to harden off plants before planting.
When you are ready, use a shovel to dig a hole roughly 2 ft wide and 1 ft deep. This should be large enough to comfortably hold your chosen plant. You can place the plant, still in its container, in the hole to check that it is large enough.
When you are happy with the size of the hole add a layer of organic matter, such as compost or well rotted manure to the base. Dig the organic matter in well.
Remove your chosen plant from its pot and, if they are compacted, gently tease the roots apart.
Position the plant in the hole. It should sit at roughly the same height when it was in its container. This means that the top of the root system sits level with, or slightly below, the soil surface. You may need to add or remove some soil to get the positioning exactly right.
When you are happy with the position of the plant, fill the hole with a mix of organic matter and excavated soil. Gently firm the soil down. If you are planting a taller specimen, or planting in an exposed position, you may want to use a KOGEN Tree Stake. This is an easy to install solution that helps to keep the young plant upright, encouraging a strong, sturdy stem to form.
Firm down the soil. Scatter a granular fertilizer, such as Miracle-Gro Shake ‘N Feed All Purpose Plant Food evenly around the base of the plant before watering in well. Finally, apply a 2 to 3 inch layer of mulch. Garden compost or bark chippings are ideal.
If you are planting more than one specimen, remember to correctly space them out. Different types of holly bushes grow to different heights while some spread more than others. This means that they may have different spacing requirements. To be sure, before planting check the information on the plant label. In general, if you are planting a hedge or privacy screen, aim to space the plants 2 ft apart.
Caring for Ilex Plants
Once established Ilex specimens are pleasingly low maintenance plants.
Once established, Ilex plants tolerate dry and cold weather well.
Water regularly, particularly during prolonged dry periods. This is particularly important when the plants are young or newly planted. Try not to overwater your plants. It can be difficult to know how much water to give your plants. A soil moisture sensor is a great little device that tells you exactly how wet or dry your soil is. This information enables you to know exactly when to water your plants.
A thick layer of organic mulch, applied in the spring, helps the soil to retain moisture during the long hot summers. As the mulch breaks down it returns nutrients to the soil, giving your plants a further boost.
A dose of general purpose homemade plant fertilizer can be applied every spring.
Some plants may also require a little pruning to help them keep their shape. Best done in the spring to optimize berry production, light pruning can be done at any time of the year. Remember most members of the Ilex genus are prickly. You may want to wear protective work gloves when pruning.
In colder or more exposed positions, your holly bushes may suffer winter damage. This is caused by exposure to cold winds or the snow. To prevent this wrap the plants in a burlap sheet or Aifanss Shrub Jacket.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.