American Holly

American holly  

Ilex opaca Aiton 


American holly (holly family, Aquifoliaceae) is an evergreen tree with broad leaves and brilliant red, ⅓ inch diameter² berries that ripen in October and last into winter³.  It can grow to be up to 40-50 feet tall and 18-40 feet wide³.  The US Champion American holly is in Arkansas and measures 64 feet in height and 58 inches in diameter spring5. Its white flowers are dioecious (male flowers and female flowers grow on separate plants),²  and mature in late spring4.  Its leaves are thick, tough, simple, alternate42-4 inches long²,  spiny and dark green to yellowish-green³.  Its bark is grayish-white and sometimes white4.   American holly trees grow in a pyramidal shape².  American holly berries are toxic to cats, dogs, horses, and humans, and can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and depression³. 

File:Ilex opaca 'Miss Butler' (Cultivar of American Holly) (31953982266).jpg

American holly fruit and leaves.  Wikimedia9  

Ilex opaca 'Miss Butler' (Cultivar of American Holly) (31150856154).jpg

Pyramidal shape of tree.  Wikimedia10 


 American holly trees are found from Massachusetts to Florida, Texas, and Missouri³. In the wild they grow near swamps and rivers4, in pine forests², and in mixed deciduous forests4.  They are often found in the understories of forests6.   American holly trees grow best in moist, loose, acidic soil, in full sun7; and they tolerate cold weather quite well³.  American holly trees need about 3-6 feet of space per plant and are found from the 5A to 9B USDA hardiness zones4.  American holly trees often grow alongside longleaf pine, sweetgum, red maple, yellow poplar, and black tupelo trees6. In Maryland, American holly trees are mostly found in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont regions, and are generally not present in the western area of the state8. 

{Native range of Ilex opaca}

Native distribution of American holly. USDA² 

Wildlife importance 

Over 18 species of birds, including wild turkeys and mourning doves eat  American holly berries. Squirrels and other small animals, and occasionally cattle and deer also consume the plant6. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker makes its nest in American holly trees.  Planting American holly can help to restore forests damaged by ocean spray6 It sometimes competes with pines and hardwoods for sunlight, water, and nutrients6.  American holly provides nectar to butterflies and other insects during the spring/summer and shelter for animals during the winter4. 

Economic Importance 

American holly wood can be used to make furniture, canes, veneer, cabinets, scientific instruments6 knife handles and (since it holds dye very well) black piano keys and violin pegs/fingerboards³,6.  American holly can be planted for Christmas or year-round decoration, in yards, streets, parks, and hedges6. 


The leaf miner and scale insects are the American holly’s biggest predators, but it’s also afflicted by many other insects and conditions, such as powdery mildew, beetles, and leaf scorch³. Aggressive harvesting of holly berries by humans, flooding4  and fire are also threats to the American holly6. 

Interesting facts 

  • American holly trees only produce either male or female flowers, so in order to produce berries, you must plant one male holly tree for every three female ones³. 
  •  Superstitions about American holly include that holly flowers could be used to turn water into ice and that planting holly trees near buildings would ward against witchcraft and lightning strikes³ 
  • Some Native Americans would make and trade buttons made of American holly berries³ 
  • In the early 1900s, holly decorations were so popular at Christmastime that people would cut down and steal the trees from other people’s property7. Both Maryland and Delaware outlawed the sale of fresh holly in an attempt to foil these holiday crimes7.
  • Some varieties of American holly produce yellow berries7On average, a pound of American holly berries contains 28, 430 seeds².
  • The Romans would give European holly as gifts to one another during the Festival of Saturn (a winter solstice celebration during late December) for good luck and protection7.
  • Among European Christians, holly was used during Christmastime since its spiky thorns and red berries symbolized Jesus’s crown of thorns and blood7.   


  1. USDA Plants: Ilex opaca
  2. USDA, Silvics of North America, Vol. 2, Hardwoods
  3. University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment: American holly
  4. North Carolina State Extension:  Ilex opaca
  5. American Forests Champion Trees: American holly
  6. USDA-Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System:  Ilex opaca
  7. Desert News:  Holly’s meaning goes way back
  8. Maryland Plant Atlas: Ilex opaca
  9. Wikimedia Commons: Ilex opaca
  10. Wikimedia Commons: Ilex opaca

  Contributed by T. Zurek 

Towson University Glen Arboretum


Towson University