How to plant holly

Growing Holly Bushes: Popular Varieties

It’s red berry time and with bunches of fresh holly leaves and berries or branches of winterberries going for $5 to $10, it only makes sense to get a few of these beautiful and easy to grow shrubs established in our own yards.

Growing Winterberry

Winterberry, also known as black alder, is one of several native American hollies. It grows 5-15 feet tall depending on the cultivar, is deciduous, and though it has colorful fall foliage it is grown mainly for its berries.

Winterberry is very cold hardy and will thrive in a wet location so they can be planted along the edge of a damp woods or streamside. They will grow in part shade but have more berries the more sun they get. Most varieties bear red berries but a few have yellow.

They are excellent for cutting and making holiday decorations. Just a few sprigs of winterberry make the transition from fall to holiday decorating.

Growing English Holly

If you like the evergreen look of classic English holly, there are many cultivars to choose from. The Ilex genus is a large one with over 400 species native to not only North America but China, Japan, Europe, and North Africa, and there are thousands of hybrids. They range in size from tiny shrubs to 50 foot tall pyramidal shaped trees and have glossy leaves in colors such as blue-green, dark green, and even variegated with white or yellow edges.

Great for BIrds

Both deciduous and evergreen hollies offer wildlife habitat and are an important source of winter food for birds. Deer also find holly to be a tasty treat and can destroy an evergreen shrub in no time if they are hungry enough.

It Takes Two

Hollies have small greenish-white flowers and the plants are dioecious, meaning that a male and female plant must be present for fruiting to occur. They are pollinated by insects so they need to be within sight of each other and also need to bloom at the same time of year. A good ratio is one male plant for every six females. Only the female plants will have berries.

Plant your holly bushes in fertile, slightly acidic soil. Evergreen varieties like it moist but well-drained while winterberry can be planted in swampy areas that are under water for part of the year. Holly roots are close to the surface so mulch them to keep them cool and moist.

Holly Through the Ages

The use of holly in holiday celebrations began long ago.

  • Ancient Romans gave holly to their friends during Saturnalia, a late December harvest festival. It was hung in their homes as a charm to protect them against evil spirits.
  • In Great Britain the druids decorated their homes at the winter solstice with holly as a symbol of the renewal of life and light.
  • Walking sticks made of holly wood were popular into the 19th century as protection against mad dogs and wild animals.
  • It was also believed that the planting of holly next to the house would not only ward off evil spirits but protect against lightning bolts!

There are many reasons to place holly high on your wishlist of plants for next season.

Happy Holly Days!

Pruning hollies

Photo/Illustration: Lee Ann White

Few plants are more versatile than hollies. With their textural foliage, ornamental berries, and varied growth habit, it is easy to see why this genus is hugely popular with gardeners around the country. For the most part, hollies are a diverse group of plants that have unique traits and acclimate easily to many different environments. But just like good soil, adequate nutrients, and sun, proper pruning is important to keep hollies healthy and beautiful.

Timing is an important factor when pruning hollies. Whenever you prune your plants, they typically send out new growth, which is susceptible to sudden drops in temperature and frost. For evergreen hollies, it’s best to prune in early summer so that this new growth won’t be damaged by cool temperatures. Don’t be surprised if female hollies have fewer berries after being pruned because the process removes most of the summer flowers that develop into winter fruit. Depending on the look you want and the type of shrub you have, pruning can give hollies either a formal shape or, with thinning, an informal look—and keep them looking good year-round.

Type dictates technique

Identifying hollies can be a bit complicated. There are deciduous and evergreen species, hollies with serrated leaves and those with drop-shaped foliage, females that provide festive fruit and males that are less showy. The growth habit of your shrub will largely dictate how you prune it. This chart will help you determine what type of holly you have and what techniques will keep it healthy and happy.

Deciduous hollies

1. Winterberry2. Possumhaw

Pruning technique: Radical pruning is needed each year.

1. Winterberry ( Ilex verticillata and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 5–8)
2. Possumhaw ( I. decidua and cvs., Z 5–9)

Rounded hollies

1. Japanese holly
2. Inkberry
3. Yaupon holly

Pruning technique: Thinning is needed only in the first few years of growth. Formal shaping can continue throughout the life of the plant.

Indeterminate hollies

1. Blue holly 2. English holly

Pruning technique: Thinning and formal shaping can occur throughout the life of the holly.

Pyramidal hollies

1. American holly 2. English holly

Pruning technique: Young plants should be thinned, but formal shaping is usually not needed.

Thinning reduces interior bulk

Remove crossing or intersecting branches to a branch union.

In general, hollies have a beautiful natural form, but occasionally some wayward branches creep in. By removing crossing or intersecting branches to a branch union, you can enhance the natural form of your plant. Pruning these branches also prevents overcrowding in the framework of the holly and reduces interior bulk. Ideally, this thinning results in a holly with well-positioned branches and opens it up to better air circulation, helping prevent disease. Over the years, this pruning results in a better organization of branches, eventually reducing the amount of overall pruning your shrub will need. When done correctly, thinning should not be noticeable, so use a cut parallel to the main branch to help hide the unsightly stub.

Shaping gives hollies a strong outline

Use a series of deliberate cuts that removes the end of a branch to a bud or leaf node.

If you’re looking to create a hedge or some other formal shape with your holly, use a series of deliberate cuts that removes the end of a branch to a bud or leaf node. This process shortens the branch to create the desired shape but doesn’t remove it. Cuts should be made at an angle, sloping upward in order to conceal the stub. With most formal shapes, the base of the plant should be slightly wider than the top, allowing the sun to reach all areas of the plant and preventing the development of bare legs. Many people mistakenly use this method of pruning to try to control the size of their hollies, but this ends up being a vicious cycle because, like most pruning, it actually promotes new growth.

Radical pruning suits the loose form of deciduous hollies

Stems that are thicker than a thumb should be cut to the ground

Deciduous hollies are in a pruning category all their own. These vigorous growers should be thinned back every year in late winter to improve their shape and encourage new growth. Stems that are thicker than a thumb should be cut to the ground, but never remove more than one-third of the shrub. Canes that are old, weak, or spindly and those straying too far outside the main body of the shrub should be the first to go. Then, if there is still pruning to be done, move on to the thickest canes. Although this renewal pruning may seem drastic, it is the best way to maintain the beautiful natural form of deciduous hollies and keep them healthy.

The golden rules of pruning

Bypass loppers Bypass pruners

General maintenance is a must. Dead, damaged, and diseased wood should always be removed in order to maintain the health of your plant. Dead wood is simply unsightly and should be removed to improve the overall appearance of your holly. Damaged wood provides the perfect entry point for insects and diseases into an otherwise healthy plant. Branches that show signs of disease should be cut back to healthy wood in order to prevent the spread or recurrence of any disease and to encourage new, healthy growth.

The right tool for the right job. When pruning any woody plant, it’s best to use tools with sharp blades. Bypass-blade hand pruners and loppers are ideal because anvil types crush delicate growth tissue. Dull power shears tear foliage rather than cut it, leaving behind unsightly and marred leaves. For larger branches, saws specifically sold for pruning trees and shrubs cut cleanly and are easier to use than your neighbor’s reciprocating saw.

Holly facts for kids

European Holly (Ilex aquifolium) leaves and fruit
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Subclass: Asteridae
(unranked): Euasterids II
Order: Aquifoliales
Family: Aquifoliaceae
DC. ex A.Rich.
Genus: Ilex

About 600, see text

Holly is a type of bush with recognisable leaves. The leaves have sharp edges, and are often used to decorate a house on Christmas Day. Some types of holly are used to make tea. The leaves of the Holly don’t fall of in the winter because they’re very thick and have a waxy layer on them.


Ilex paraguariensis

The genus Ilex is widespread throughout the temperate and subtropical regions of the world. It includes species of trees, shrubs, and climbers, with evergreen or deciduous foliage and inconspicuous flowers. Its range was more extended in the Tertiary period and many species are adapted to laurel forest habitat. It occurs from sea level to more than 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) with high mountain species. It is a genus of small, evergreen trees with smooth, glabrous, or pubescent branchlets. The plants are generally slow-growing with some species growing to 25 m (82 ft) tall. The type species is the European holly Ilex aquifolium described by Linnaeus.

Plants in this genus have simple, alternate glossy leaves, frequently with a spiny leaf margin. The inconspicuous flower is greenish white, with four petals. They are generally dioecious, with male and female flowers on different plants.

The small fruits of Ilex, although often referred to as berries, are technically drupes. They range in color from red to brown to black, and rarely green or yellow. The “bones” contain up to ten seeds each. Some species produce fruits parthenogenetically, such as the cultivar ‘Nellie R. Stevens’. The fruits ripen in winter and thus provide winter colour contrast between the bright red of the fruits and the glossy green evergreen leaves. Hence the cut branches, especially of I. aquifolium, are widely used in Christmas decoration. The fruits are generally slightly toxic to humans, and can cause vomiting and diarrhea when ingested. However, they are an important food source for birds and other animals, which help disperse the seeds. Unfortunately this can have negative impacts as well. Along the west coast of North America, from California to British Columbia, English Holly (Ilex aquifolium), which is grown commercially, is quickly spreading into native forest habitat, where it thrives in shade and crowds out native species. It has been placed on the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board’s monitor list, and is a Class C invasive plant in Portland.


The genus is distributed throughout the world’s different climates. Most species make their home in the tropics and subtropics, with a worldwide distribution in temperate zones. The greatest diversity of species is found in the Americas and in Southeast Asia.

In Europe the genus is represented by a single species, the classically named holly Ilex aquifolium, and in continental Africa by this species and (Ilex mitis). Ilex canariensis, from Macaronesia, and Ilex aquifolium arose from a common ancestor in the laurel forests of the Mediterranean. Australia, isolated at an early period, has (Ilex arnhemensis).

Of 204 species growing in China, 149 species are endemic. A species which stands out for its economic importance in Spanish-speaking countries is Ilex paraguariensis or Yerba mate. Having evolved numerous species that are endemic to islands and small mountain ranges, and being highly useful plants, many hollies are now becoming rare.


Often the tropical species are especially threatened by habitat destruction and overexploitation. At least two species of Ilex have become extinct recently, and many others are barely surviving.

They are extremely important food for numerous species of birds, and also are eaten by other wild animals. In the autumn and early winter the fruits are hard and apparently unpalatable. After being frozen or frosted several times, the fruits soften, and become milder in taste. During winter storms, birds often take refuge in hollies, which provide shelter, protection from predators (by the spiny leaves), and food. The flowers are sometimes eaten by the larva of the double-striped pug moth (Gymnoscelis rufifasciata). Other Lepidoptera whose larvae feed on holly include Bucculatrix ilecella, which feeds exclusively on hollies, and the engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia).


Holly can contain caffeic acid, caffeoyl derivatives, caffeoylshikimic acid, chlorogenic acid, feruloylquinic acid, quercetin, quinic acid, kaempferol, tannins, rutin, caffeine, and theobromine.

Holly berries can cause vomiting and diarrhoea. They are especially dangerous in cases involving accidental consumption by children attracted to the bright red berries. Ingestion of over 20 berries may be fatal to children.

Holly leaves, if eaten, might cause diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and stomach and intestinal problems.

Holly plants might be toxic to pets and livestock.


Leaves of some holly species are used by some cultures to make daily tea. These species are Yerba mate (I. paraguariensis), Ilex guayusa, Kuding (Ilex kaushue), Yaupon (I. vomitoria) and others. Leaves of other species, such as gallberry (I. glabra) are bitter and emetic. In general little is known about inter-species variation in constituents or toxicity of hollies.

Ornamental use

Traditional Christmas card with holly and mistletoe. Circa 1880s

Holly – more specifically the European holly, Ilex aquifolium – is commonly referenced at Christmas time, and is often referred to by the name Christ’s thorn. In many Western Christian cultures, holly is a traditional Christmas decoration, used especially in wreaths and illustrations, for instance on Christmas cards.

Images for kids

  • European Holly (Ilex aquifolium) leaves and fruit

  • Hollies (here, Ilex aquifolium) are dioecious: (above) shoot with flowers from male plant; (top right) male flower enlarged from female plant; (lower right) female flower enlarged, showing stamen and reduced, sterile stamens with no pollen.

  • Ilex anomala

  • A contorted hedgehog holly Ilex aquifolium ‘Ferox’

  • Ilex chinensis

  • Ilex pedunculosa

  • Ilex rotunda

  • Ilex yunnanensis

  • Ilex × meserveae

  • Ilex pernyi from west China.


The white, radially symmetrical male flowers are small and are arranged in small clusters, rounded, at the leaf axils. Female flowers are similar in appearance but are arranged singularly along the length of the branches. The blooms have a green, spherical center, surrounded by white stamens, a shallow, fused corolla that opens into approximately four rounded petal lobes, and delicate green sepals.


The berry-like fruit is round and bright red. Berries are arranged singularly along the length of the stem.


The glossy green, leathery leaves measure approximately 5 cm. in length and are elliptical with pointed tips, pronounced, ridged midveins, and characteristically-toothed margins. Leaves are arranged in an alternate fashion.


American holly grows best in a wide variety of soils excluding wetlands and extremely dry mediums.

Fun Facts:

American holly is an evergreen whose bright, showy berries and characteristic leaves make it a popular component of ornamental winter displays.

American holly berries are a popular food source for birds.

Other names attributed to American holly include white holly and Christmas holly.

American holly is the only member of the Holly family that can attain tree size.

Holly Tree Facts and Information

Quick Facts

Holly Botanical Description:

Holly Trees have famously spiky leaves! Often the lower leaves are very spiny, while upper leaves are more ovate and have fewer spikes. This development is related to protecting leaves within reach of browsing animals. Glossy dark green above, matt light green below, and waxy to touch, like other evergreen trees. The trunks are grey, smooth to begin with but becoming wrinkled and gnarled with age. Like yew and beech one of the few British native trees to thrive in shade.

Only female trees produce bright red berries. Both the males and females produce red buds which develop small white flowers in May. Fruit develops in July, but remain hard and green until the next summer. Holly trees are pollinated by insects, and seed spread by birds through whose gut they must pass before germination. This is why little hollies mysteriously appear in gardens when there is no tree near!

Should be planted (and trimmed) in late September. A good crop of berries is not related to hard winters but a good summer 18 months previously when the flowers were pollinated and fertilized. Holly likes damp ground and should not be grown in pots.

Holly Natural History and Ancient Wisdom:

The wood of a Holly Tree is useful mainly as firewood as it burns very well. It was also used as inlay in carving. In pre-modern England holly was grown in upland areas for cattle and deer to eat in winter; many upland woods, especially in north-west England still have a strong understorey of holly.

The presence of large amounts of holly growing in hedgerows is a good indicator that historically moss lands existed nearby. Holly was a favourite hedging tree because it is hardy and remains a tough barrier to stock throughout the year.

The Holly Boy and the Ivy Girl represent a now forgotten pagan meaning which survived associated with Shrove Tuesday festivals. The bringing in of holly to houses at Christmas is linked the strong association between Holly trees and the rebirth of the sun at the midwinter Solstice (21st December). In Irish legend, the sun god was Mac Cuill (son of Holly).

The original yule log burnt at Christmas was holly. As Holly was full in leaf and bright with berries at a time when all other trees (bar yew, which was thought immortal anyway) it was seen as a representation of life in midwinter. Finn Mac Cool, when he is musing on his lucky escape from the Underworld at Samhain (see Rowan), concludes that “those who came against us, the 3 shapes out of Yew Glen (i.e. the valley of death) came to take vengeance on us for their sister whose name was Cullen wide mouth”. Cullen means Holly, and there is some suggestion that Finn had had to slay the winter deities, of whom Holly was one, to be reborn back into the world of life and escape the Underworld.

Holly Place Names in the UK:

The places name ‘Holm’ and ‘Hollin’ refers to sites where holly grew.

  • Hollins Green, (Cheshire)
  • Hollinfare (Lancashire)
  • Holmesdale (Surrey)

Holly Wildlife Rating:


In winter thrushes such as Blackbirds, Redwing and Fieldfare gorge themselves on holly berries and spread the seed. Many birds will nest in holly as its spiky leaves protect them from predators, or roost in it in winter.

In April, the Holly blue butterfly can be seen flitting around holly bushes on which it lays its eggs; in autumn these young lay next years generation on Ivy!

Holly Good Points / Bad Points:

Excellent in hedges, especially with beech as the bronze winter foliage or light green spring leaves of the latter are complemented wonderfully by the dark green of holly. Holly can also be shaped into a good variety of standard bushes and trees.

Holly leaves once fallen form a spiky dense carpet of old leathery leaves which take a long time to rot and allow little to grow through. Also vulnerable to leaf-mining insects, which form silver trails in the leaf. Holly berries are not poisonous but are inedible.

Buy a Holly Tree

Did you know that we have been sending trees as gifts for over 15 years?! We deliver hand gift wrapped trees and plants around the UK as meaningful gifts that last for years.

Holly is a great way to bring wildlife to the garden and is an attractive specimen tree year round but especially throughout winter. Our Holly Tree Gift is great to send for a year-round gift but is especially perfect for a winter birthday or Christmas.

Take a look at our Holly Tree Care Guide for information and advice on looking after your tree.

Poinsettia Care – How Do You Take Care Of Poinsettias

How do you take care of poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima)? Carefully. These finicky short-day plants require specific growing needs in order to retain their Christmas blooms. However, with proper care, your holiday poinsettia should continue to put out blooms, or in the least remain attractive for weeks after.

Holiday Poinsettia Plant Care

Poinsettia care begins with proper light, water, and temperature conditions. During the holidays, while in full bloom, they typically enjoy semi-cool, humid locations in bright, indirect light with plenty of moisture. Poinsettia plants should be watered thoroughly, taking care not to drown them by ensuring adequate drainage is available. Likewise, avoid letting them sit in water-filled saucers, which can lead to root rot. Adding plants nearby can help increase humidity levels in dry rooms, as will humidifiers.

Once flower bracts have fallen, you have the option of discarding the plant or keeping it an additional year. For those choosing to continue with poinsettia care, decrease regular watering to allow the plant to dry out some. However, don’t let it dry out completely. Also, relocate the poinsettia plant to a cool, dark area until spring or around April.

Fertilizing Poinsettia Plants

Fertilizing poinsettia plants is never recommended while they’re still in bloom. Fertilize poinsettias only if keeping them after the holiday season. Apply fertilizer every two weeks or once monthly using a complete houseplant fertilizer. Provided the poinsettia plant is given the proper environmental conditions, it should begin to regrow within weeks.

Poinsettia Care After the Holidays

In spring, return the plant to a sunny area and water well. Cut back all canes (branches) to about 6 inches from the pot’s rim. It may also be a good idea to repot the poinsettia using the same type of soil. While poinsettias can be kept indoors throughout summer, many people choose to move them outdoors in a sunny, but protected, area of the flower garden by sinking the pot into the ground. Either way is fine.

After new growth has reached between 6 to 10 inches, pinch out the tips to encourage branching. This can be done once a month until the middle of August. Once nights become longer in fall, bring the poinsettia indoors.

From about September through November light becomes crucial in poinsettia plant care. In order to encourage blooming, poinsettia plants require long periods of darkness at night (about 12 hours). Therefore, move the poinsettia to a location where it will not receive any nighttime light or cover it with a box. Allow plenty of light during the day so the plant can absorb enough energy for flowering. Warmer days (65-70 F./18-21 C.) and cooler nights (55-60 F./13-16 C.) are also recommended. Provide semi-cool, humid locations in bright, indirect light with plenty of moisture once blooming occurs.

Poinsettia Plant Leaves Are Falling Off

It’s important to pinpoint the possible cause in the event that your poinsettia plant leaves are falling off, as in some cases, this can be easily fixed. Environmental factors such as warm, dry conditions are most often the reason for leaf drop. Stress can also be a factor. Keep the plant in a cool, draft-free area and provide plenty of water. If all else fails, the plant may need to be discarded.

Now that you know how do you take care of poinsettias you can keep these lovely plants year round. With proper poinsettia plant care, they will give you many years of beauty.

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