Holly tree or bush

Common Types Of Holly Shrubs: Learn About Different Holly Plant Varieties

The holly family (Ilex spp.) includes a diverse group of shrubs and trees. You’ll find plants that grow only 18 inches (46 cm.) tall as well as trees as tall as 60 feet (18.2 m.). The leaves may be hard and spiny or soft to the touch. Most are dark green, but you can also find purple tints and variegated forms. With so much variation in holly varieties, you’re sure to find one to fill your landscape need. Let’s take a look at some of the different types of hollies.

Holly Plant Varieties

There are two common types of holly categories: evergreen and deciduous. Here are some popular types of holly shrubs to grow in the landscape.

Evergreen Hollies

Chinese Holly (I. cornuta) – These evergreen shrubs have dark green leaves with pronounced spines. Chinese holly shrubs tolerate hot temperatures but sustain winter damage in areas colder than USDA plant hardiness zone 6. The different types of hollies in this group include ‘Burfordii,’ which is one of the most popular cultivars for hedges, and ‘O. Spring,’ a variegated type with irregular bands of yellow on the leaves.

Japanese Holly (I. crenata) – Japanese hollies are generally softer in texture than Chinese hollies. They come in a range of shapes sizes with endless uses in the landscape. These hollies don’t do well in areas with hot summers, but they tolerate colder temperatures than the Chinese hollies. ‘Sky Pencil’ is a dramatic columnar cultivar that grows up to 10 feet (3 m.) tall and less than two feet (0.6 m.) wide. ‘Compacta’ is a neat, globe-shaped group of Japanese hollies.

American Holly (I. opaca) – These North American natives grow into up to 60 feet (18 m.) tall, and a mature specimen is a landscape treasure. Although these types of hollies are common in woodland settings, American holly isn’t often used in residential landscapes because it grows very slowly. ‘Old Heavy Berry’ is a vigorous cultivar that bears lots of fruit.

Inkberry Holly (I. glabra) – Similar to Japanese hollies, inkberries are distinguished by their black berries. Species types tend to have bare lower branches because they drop their lower leaves, but cultivars such as ‘Nigra’ have good lower leaf retention.

Yaupon Holly (I. vomitoria) – Yaupon is a group holly plant varieties with small leaves that have a purplish tint when young. Some of the more interesting types have white berries. The leaves on ‘Bordeaux’ have a deep, burgundy tint that becomes darker in winter. ‘Pendula’ is a graceful, weeping holly often used as a specimen plant.

Deciduous Hollies

Possumhaw (I. decidua) – Taking the form of either a multi-stemmed shrub or small tree, possumhaw grows to heights of 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 m.). It sets a heavy load of dark orange or red berries which remain on the branches after the leaves fall.

Winterberry Holly (I. verticillata) – Winterberry is very similar to possumhaw, but it grows only 8 feet tall. There are several cultivars to choose from, most of which set fruit earlier than the species.


(Ilex opaca)

Interesting Information About Plant:

The plant needs to be in medium-wet, well-drained soil and sunny or partial shade. These trees develop slowly and produce white flowers in late spring and red berries that last through winter. Holly is separated into male and female plants. The berries only grow on female Holly trees and the male trees must be nearby to help pollinate female flowers and ensure fruiting. To keep the berries going the males must pollinate the female. The practical uses are for dye color from the berries and the plants are very popular for landscaping and provides nesting habits for songbirds. Edible use is tea and the leaves are roasted used for tea subsitute but they don’t contain caffeine. The medical uses are that the berries can be used for childern’s diarrhea. Also tea from the leaves has been used for measles and colds. Leaves help treatment for sore eyes and itchy skin.

The only plant truly associated with the Christmas season because when the first settlers of the Americans from across the pond saw it on the shores of what is now Massachusetts it reminded them of English Holly, which was always used to celebrate Christmas in Europe. Since then it has been popular for use in the Eastern United States for its berries and foliage and Christmas decorations and ornamentation. Despite its beauty, one must be careful because the red berry-like fruit that the females produce are toxic and therefore should not be eaten. Despite being toxic to humans, the berries are considered to be a vital source of food for birds during seasons when other food sources are limited. But even before European settlers came over it was also used by the Native Americans to make a tea for coughing by boiling the leaves, and it was even a plant favorite of George Washington. More recently in the 20th century the plant became so popular it was being stolen from people’s homes and in Delaware and Massachusetts laws were passed to prohibit sale of fresh Holly. The Holly plant does grow pretty slow, but can eventually attain a height of around 30-50 feet in a compact pyramid shape. If planted in the right conditions and decently cared for some hollies can live up to 100 years or longer.

Common Name(s): American Holly Tree

Scientific Name: Ilex opaca

Family Name (Scientific and Common): Aquifoliaceae (The Holly family)

Continent of Origin: North America

Plant Growth Habit: Tree

Height at Maturity: More than 10 Feet

Life Span: Perennial

Seasonal Habit: Evergreen Perennial

Growth Habitat: Full Sun / Partial Sun (survive with both)

Manner of Culture: Landscape Shrub-Tree / Native Species

Thorns on Younger Stem: No

Cross Section of Younger Stem: Roundish

Stem (or Trunk) Diameter: More Than The Diameter of a Coffee-Mug

Produces Brownish Bark: No (Grayish)

Bark Peeling in Many Areas: No

Characteristics of Mature (Brownish) Bark: Smooth Bark Type of Leaf: Thick, Fleshy Leaf

Length of Leaf (or Leaflet): Less than Length of a Credit Card

Leaf Complexity: Simple

Edge of Leaf: Serrated

Leaf Arrangement: Alternate

Leaf has Petiole: Yes

Patterns of Main-Veins on Leaf (or Leaflet): Pinnate

Leaf Hairiness: No Hairs

Color of Foliage in Summer: Green

Change in Color of Foliage in October: No Change

Flowering Season: Spring

Flowers: Tightly Clustered

Type of Flower: Colorful Flower

Color of Flower: White

Shape of Individual Flower: Radially Symmetrical

Size of Individual Flower: Smaller than a Quarter

Sexuality: Male and Female Flowers on Separate Plants

Size of Fruit: Smaller than a Quarter

Fruit Fleshiness: Fleshy

Shape of Fruit: Spherical

Color of Fruit at Maturity: Red

Fruit Desirable to Birds or Squirrels: Yes

Louisville Plants That Are Most Easily Confused With This One: English Holly Tree

Unique Morphological Features of Plant: Produces spines on the edges of their leaves.

Poisonous: Part of Plant

Pestiness (weedy, hard to control): No

Page prepared by:

Gabe Tanner & Ashley Lewallen

November 2004

10 hollies to grow

Everyone is familiar with our common holly, Ilex aquifolium, with its glossy evergreen leaves and red berries. But there are lots of other varieties to grow, some with attractive foliage and berries that range in colour from orange to purple.


Make a holly and skimmia pot display.

Hollies are generally male or female, so check before you buy. If you want berries on a female plant, you will need to plant a male nearby. Some cultivar names can be confusing: for example, Ilex aquifolium ‘Golden Queen’ is male, while Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’ is female.

Hollies are easy to grow – they will grow in sun or partial shade, and prefer moist but well drained soil. The variegated varieties keep their colours better in full sun. Hollies can be grown as specimen plants in a lawn, or in a mixed or shrub border, and some make excellent hedges – great for garden security. They need minimal pruning – just remove any diseased or wrongly placed branches in spring. Trim holly hedges in late summer.

If you are cutting holly as a festive decoration, pick some sprigs early in winter, before the berries get eaten by birds.

Here are 10 attractive hollies to grow.

If you are cutting holly as a festive decoration, pick some sprigs early in winter, before the berries get eaten by birds.

Ilex aquifolium

Common holly, Ilex aquifolium, has shiny, evergreen leaves. It can be grown as a specimen tree, a clipped bush or a hedge. There are dozens of varieties, many of which have variegated leaves. Both a male and a female plant are required for the female plants to produce red berries, which appear from late autumn to mid-winter.

Height: over 12m


Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’

Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’ is a beautiful variegated female holly. Its spiny, dark green leaves have silver-cream edges, tinged pink when young. In autumn it produces masses of bright red berries. As it’s tolerant of salt and pollution, it’s particularly suitable for growing in urban or coastal sites.

Height: 15m


Ilex aquifolium ‘Silver Queen’

Ilex aquifolium ‘Silver Queen’ is grown for its distinctive foliage – it has distinctive silver margins on its spiny and glossy green leaves. Despite its name, it’s a male plant, so does not produce berries. The stems and young foliage are purple.

Height: 12m


Ilex aquifolium ‘Myrtifolia Aurea Maculata’

Ilex aquifolium ‘Myrtifolia Aurea Maculata’ is a male cultivar with small leaves that are splashed with yellow. It’s a compact, slow growing shrub and like most variegated hollies, does best in full sun.

Height: 2.5m


Ilex aquifolium ‘Silver Mermaid’

Ilex aquifolium ‘Silver Mermaid’ is an attractive variegated holly, bearing spiny, dark green leaves with a creamy white variegation. It’s a female variety that produces red berries in autumn.

Height: 6m


Ilex x koehneana ‘Chestnut Leaf’

This unusual holly is a cross between Ilex aquifolium and Ilex latifolia. Its soft, glossy serrated leaves look very similar to those of sweet chestnut. The branches of this female variety sweep down and are loaded with late red berries, which persist on the plant for a long time. A vigorous grower, it has an attractive pyramidal shape.

Height: 8m


Ilex aquifolium ‘Hascombensis’

This unusual male holly is a slow growing shrub with small, pointed leaves. It’s very compact, making it suitable for growing in a pot.

Height: 60cm


Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Belgica Aurea’

Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Belgica Aurea’ is another pretty, variegated holly. Its slender leaves are dark green with a yellow edge and are about 10cm in length. A female variety, it’s a fast grower.

Height: 12m


Ilex aquifolium ‘Ferox Argentea’

Ilex aquifolium ‘Ferox Argentea’ is also known as the ‘silver hedgehog holly’, probably because it has spines on the surface of its leaves as well as the edges. It’s fairly slow growing but has a dense habit, and can be pruned to make an unusual hedge – good for security. It keeps its variegation in shade. It’s male, so doesn’t produce berries.

Height: 8m


Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’

Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’ is one of the prettiest golden variegated hollies you can grow. It is relatively compact, with a conical shape. Despite its name, it’s a female variety and produces red berries in autumn.


Height: 6m

Holly as an alternative to box

If your box plants have been hit by box blight or the box tree caterpillar, Ilex crenata, the box-leaved holly, can be a good alternative. This compact evergreen has tiny, serrated leaves and can be clipped into shapes.

Expert Advice on Growing Holly

One stands out head and shoulders above the others and that is Welsh Holly. They are a dedicated holly nursery where they grow a huge number of these plants. They are the best source for healthy and reasonably priced holly trees in the UK. We thoroughly recommend them.

The plants are healthy, they come well packaged and can be ordered from their website. Plants raised at this nursery will grow on well in almost all areas of the UK because they have been grown in average UK weather rather than in some of the milder areas.

If you are in the Exeter area then we can also recommend the two St Bridget Nurseries nearby. They grow many of their own plants which can also be ordered online. They sell a reasonably good range of home-grown holly plants.


Hollies come in all shapes and sizes including variegated leaves. It’s impossible for us to say which is holly is best for you because your needs and taste will be different from ours. We do have a few favourites though and these appear below. All pictures below are courtesy of Welsh Holly. They have a far more extensive library of pictures and descriptions which can be found here.

‘J C VAN TOL’ (ilex aquifolium)
Many people don’t have room for more than one holly tree and this variety is the ideal solution because it is self-fertile and produces berries as a single tree.

As you can see from the picture above J C van Tol makes an impressive standard holly. The evergreen leaves have almost no prickles and are dark green. the red berries are produced freely. It prunes to shape well and makes an ideal hedge or single show plant. It is available also with silver or gold variegated leaves. As much as we like the variegated leaves of many hollies, we prefer the plain green leaves of the normal variety.

ELEGANTISSIMA (ilex aquifolium)
One of the very best of the variegated forms of holly. The colour of the leaves change as they age, form a lighter green and pinkish white to the more distinguished dark green and cream-white

This variety is in male form only so won’t produce berries but it can be used to pollinate other female varieties of holly. It makes an ideal centre point as a single plant or as a hedge. Birds will use it for shelter.

BELGICA AUREA / SILVER SENTINEL (ilex altaclerensis)
An elegant and beautiful holly plant with spineless leaves. Berries are produced on female forms but not as much as other varieties. It is the long leaves which distinguish this variety.

Left unpruned it can grow to 10m high though it is easily controlled with an annual prune. This variety grows quicker than most other hollies.

ARGENTEA MARGINATA (ilex aquifolium)
A variegated female form of holly with beautifully coloured leaves and deep red berries.

One of the most popular of all the hollies, this variety dates back to 1770. The leaves have a pinkish hue when young which turns to silver and green. A definite winner.


Hollies make excellent hedges and there is one particular variety which is particularly useful. It is Ilex crenata ‘Dark Green’. Its growth habit and appearance is almost identical to a Box Tree hedge but with some distinct advantages.

Another alternative, with slightly larger leaves, is Ilex crenata ‘Golden Gem’ – see the picture below.

Ilex crenata Golden Gem

Firstly it is far more resistant to pests and diseases compared to Box tree hedges which in recent years have begun to suffer badly from a number of problems, see our Box Tree Caterpillar news article for example. Box blight has also spread to many parts of the UK, Ilex crenata is not affected by Box Blight.

Damage caused by Box Blight

Ilex crenata also does not suffer from leaf burn when trimmed to shape, a distinct advantage and time saver when trimming hedges. It is also fully capable of springing back into growth from bare wood, something which Box is not capable of.

We have negotiated a 10% discount on Ilex crenata ‘Dark Green’ for you from Victoriana Nursery. If you click on the , the 10% will be deducted at the checkout automatically, no need for a code.


Below we list the key strengths and weaknesses of Hollies.

HARDY (to -18°C)
SHADE Partial, full sun
POT / CONTAINER Some types
FLOWER TIME Winter berries (female plants)

Types of Holly

Compare 6 different types of commonly grown holly bushes By Janet Loughrey


With more than 400 species, hollies are one of the most diverse groups of plants. Learn more about each type to find the right fit for your garden.


Berry Poppins® Winterberry Holly. Photo by: Proven Winners.

Zones: 3-9
Botanical name: Ilex verticillata
Shrub type: Deciduous
Native:Eastern US and southeast Canada
Growing conditions: Grows well in wetlands, grasslands and dry sand dunes and is tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions. In wet sites, plants will spread to form a dense thicket, while in dry soil, plants remain smaller.
Habit: Plants develop an upright open habit, maturing at 5 to 15 feet tall and wide.
Foliage and berries: Glossy green leaves are 1-1/2 to 3-1/2 inches long, oval, with slightly serrated edges. The red fruit is a food source for songbirds—particularly robins—during winter. The absence of winter foliage allows the prolific berries to appear more pronounced in the landscape.
Uses: Branches can be cut and used in floral arrangements, wreaths and garlands. Use as hedging, screening, or naturalize in a woodland setting.


Gem Box® Inkberry Holly. Photo by: Proven Winners.

Botanical name: Ilex glabra
Shrub type: Evergreen
Native: Inkberry is indigenous to sandy woodlands, swamps, and bogs in coastal areas of eastern North America.
Growing conditions: This evergreen shrub is highly adaptable, tolerating a wide range of soil and light conditions.
Habit: Standard plants have an upright bushy habit, reaching 5 to 10 feet high and wide at maturity, dwarf varieties reach 2 to 3 feet tall and wide.
Foliage and berries: Glossy green leaves up to 1-1/2 inches long have smooth or slightly serrated margins. The name inkberry comes from the black pea-sized berries, which sometimes occur in red and white.
Uses: Tolerant of salt, urban pollution, and wet conditions, inkberry can be planted in bogs and rain gardens, as well as near streams, ponds and beachside locations. Use as hedging or screening, or naturalize in a woodland setting. Cultivars such as ‘Densa’ are typically better garden plants than the straight species, with a more compact habit and less suckering.


Sky Box® Japanese Holly. Photo by: Proven Winners.

Zones: 5-8
Botanical name: Ilex crenata
Shrub type: Evergreen
Native: Asia
Growing conditions: This evergreen shrub or small tree can adapt to a wide range of soil conditions and is tolerant of drought, shade and urban pollution.
Habit: Highly variable, Japanese holly comes in an array of forms, including rounded, upright, spreading, columnar and pyramidal. Size ranges from 1 to 15 feet tall and 1 to 12 feet wide.
Foliage and berries: The glossy leaves are small, up to 1-1/4 inches long, with a smooth, wavy or spiny margin, occurring in colors of green, blue-green, or yellow. Pea-sized fruit is black or red.
Uses: Japanese holly is a popular subject for bonsai enthusiasts, and can be used as a substitute for boxwood. Grow in a container, as hedging, screening, pathway edging, or foundation plantings.


‘Nana’ Yaupon Holly. Photo by: Spring Meadow Nursery.

Zones: 7-10
Botanical name: Ilex vomitoria
History: Native Americans brewed the leaves and stems for a drink that was used in rituals that included vomiting—hence the species name—though the plant itself does not cause stomach upset.
Shrub type: Evergreen
Native: This broadleaf evergreen shrub or small tree, native to the southeastern U.S. and Mexico.
Growing conditions: Grows naturally in coastal areas with well-draining sandy soils. Yaupon holly prefers warm, humid conditions similar to its native habitat, and is more drought-tolerant and disease-resistant than many other species.
Habit: Size ranges from 4 to 20 feet tall and 6 to 15 feet wide, with structure that is upright, dwarf, columnar, or weeping.
Foliage and berries: Glossy green leaves are ½ to 1-1/2 inches long and oval with slightly toothed margins. Fruit is shiny red or yellow.
Uses: Can be trained into small vase-shaped trees with multiple trunks that showcase the attractive gray bark. Dwarf types, which look similar to boxwood, are useful for hedging. Yaupon holly can also be grown as privacy screening or in foundation plantings.


‘Argentea Marginata’ English Holly.
Photo by: Marinodenisenko / .

Warning: This plant is invasive in lots of places. See where here.
Zones: 7-9
Botanical name: Ilex aquifolium
Shrub type: Evergreen
Native: European native
Growing conditions: English hollies don’t tolerate heat well, and are best planted in partial shade in warmer areas. They do require well-draining soil and will deteriorate rapidly if planted in wet areas. They also prefer to be protected from cold winter winds.
Habit: These evergreen trees or shrubs range from 15 to 80 feet tall and 8 to 25 feet wide, and are upright or pyramidal in structure.
Foliage and berries: Thick leathery leaves are glossy, 2 to 4 inches long, oval, with spiny or spineless margins, and come in colors of green, blue-green, or variegated. Berries are large and rounded, in colors of bright red, orange, or yellow.
Uses: Popularized in Christmas carols and lore, the branches and berries of English holly have long been used to adorn holiday wreaths and garlands. Grow as a foundation planting, landscape accent, or train into a small tree.


Castle Spire® Blue Holly. Photo by: Proven Winners.

Zones: 5-9
Botanical name: Ilex x meserveae
Shrub type: This dense evergreen shrub—a hybrid cross between English holly and tsuru holly (Ilex rugosa)—was developed as a standard form to be sold in nurseries and garden centers.
Growing conditions: Plant in areas with moist, well-drained and slightly acidic soil. The plants do best in a partial to full sun site.
Habit: The structure can be upright, bushy, or pyramidal. Vigorous plants are fast growing, reaching 5 to 15 feet high and 3 to 10 feet wide at maturity.
Foliage and berries: The glossy leaves are ¾ to 3 inches long, spiny and dark blue-green in color. Showy large berries are bright red.
Uses: Use pyramidal forms as a stand-alone accent or as hedging. Bushy types can be allowed to grow naturally or kept sheared as formal hedging.

See more on hollies:
How to Grow Holly Bushes
Pruning Holly Bushes

How to Landscape With Holly Bushes

holly image by david purday from Fotolia.com

Landscaping with holly allows for color in the garden even during the long winter months. Holly is evergreen and produces red berries that stay on during the winter. Their glossy foliage adds interest to the garden in any season. Holly is moderately easy to grow and requires little maintenance. A good occasional pruning is necessary to keep the bushes in shape, but little else is needed.

Holly and Berries image by TMLP from Fotolia.com

Choose from the over 700 varieties of holly that are available. Some varieties have small, compact leaves, while others have larger ones. Most holly leaves are green, but one group features leaves with a blue to greenish-blue tinge, and the berries are white to blue. Pick from extremely tall varieties all the way down to the dwarf hollies.

guanto da giardinaggio – garden gloves image by Fabrizio Zanier from Fotolia.com

Place dwarf varieties around flower beds for a beautifully dense border. Most dwarf hollies grow 3 feet high or less, and can be pruned even smaller. Dig a trench about 4 or 5 inches deep around a flower bed, and place the holly plants in the trench to accommodate the root ball. Space them about 8 inches apart, and fill in with soil that has been amended with compost and peat moss. Water well, and cover the roots with mulch to retain moisture. Once the holly starts to grow, it can be pruned with pruning shears to any shape. Give it about one month to get completely rooted in the ground and established before clipping. Always wear protective gloves when pruning holly.

holly bush image by Sunshine Photos from Fotolia.com

Hide the foundation of the house with a medium-size holly, or use holly that grows 3 to 5 feet high, to hide a well or the central air-conditioning unit in the yard. They will grow dense, so leave an area where you can get in to service the unit, and plant far enough away that maintenance can be performed without being pierced by the thorny leaves. Dig a hole deep enough to accommodate the roots of the plant.

Plant medium-sized holly about 6 to 8 inches deep in individual holes. Some varieties have smaller root balls, so the rule is to plant about twice as wide and a few inches deeper than the root ball. Place plants about 1 foot apart, because they will get too crowded if planted closer together. Medium-sized plants can be pruned the same way as the dwarf plants. It may take a year or so for them to make a dense hedge.

Holly Tree image by KateC from Fotolia.com

Plant large varieties as a screen between properties, or to section off an area of the yard. Use varieties that grow over 6 feet high. You can make a dense hedge or fence with them. The spiky leaves will keep dogs and other large animals out of the yard. Dig a hole twice as wide as, and 4 to 6 inches deeper than, the root ball. Space trees and large holly bushes 1 1/2 to 2 feet apart.

Know if the holly purchased is dioecious, meaning there is a gender to the plant. Most hollies are either male or female, and the female is the one that produces the berries. The male plant produces white flowers that pollinate the female plant by insects and bees. There has to be at least one male plant for three or four females in a two-mile radius. Berries will not form if both genders are not present.

Plant all holly varieties in full sun. They also enjoy an acidic soil, so plant with other flowers that like a similar soil pH, like azaleas and rhododendron. Avoid planting holly near a playground or anywhere children would play. The berries are tempting and look like candy. Eating two or three berries can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The leaves are thorny and can cause injury if a child were to fall into a holly bush.

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