The holly family is quite diverse, with plants ranging in mature size from 2 feet tall to 40 feet tall, and spreads 10 inches to 20 feet. While many people conjure up an image of thorny foliage and bright red berries, there are a variety of leaf shapes; some spiny, some not, with berries ranging from reds to yellows, orange and black. Some are tall and narrow, some short and wide, and others are weeping. There are variegated forms and solid green forms. While many are evergreen, some are deciduous.
Keep in mind that hollies are dioecious, which means there are separate male plants and separate female plants. Both plants have small white flowers in the spring, but only the female plants will produce berries. For best fruiting, it is best to have a male plant within 30 to 40 feet of the female. If you live in a neighborhood with other yards, chances are a neighbor’s male plant can serve as your pollinator. If you live remotely, you need to be sure to plant some male plants as well as female.
Holly plants will grow in full sun to pretty heavy shade, but growth rate and berry production will be less in the shade. Most hollies prefer a well-drained soil that is slightly acidic. The inkberry hollies and our native yaupon are also adaptable to moist sites.
Which plant to buy
When choosing hollies for your landscape, consider its use. Do you want a foundation planting, an accent plant, a hedge, a container plant or an evergreen tree? Then start considering your options. If you choose the right plant for the right location, pruning will often be unnecessary, or at most involve minimal shaping.
Probably the most common holly for foundation plantings is the dwarf yaupon — Ilex vomitoria “Nana” or “Dwarf.” This plant may get to 4 feet, but it is slow-growing, and more commonly seen as a 3-foot mound or meatball in the landscape. Other low growers include Ilex crenata “Helleri” or “Soft Touch” or “Tiny Tim,” and Ilex cornuta “Carissa.” The “Compacta” holly may sound small, but it can grow to 6 feet. It is often used in our foundation planting. Many of these dwarf varieties do not bloom nor set any berries.
If you need more height, consider the I. crenata “Sky Pencil.” If you are looking for a hardy container plant to put by the front door, this may be your holly. It has a very narrow growth habit and will grow straight and tall — up to 6 feet or more, but you can keep it shorter if you prefer. It would not be a good mass foundation planting — it would look like a row of fence posts.
If you are looking for a fast-growing hedge, probably one of the best is I. x “Nellie R. Stevens.” This cross between the Chinese holly and the English holly will grow 15-25 feet tall and get there fairly rapidly. It also has a nice pyramidal growth habit. Other large hedge-like hollies include I. cornuta “Burfordii” — long a standard in our landscapes, growing 15-20 feet tall with a rather broad growth habit — and another I. cornuta “Needlepoint,” becoming 15 feet at maturity. Both of these are excellent berry producers. If you want a relatively thorn-free holly, consider the “East Palatka.”
Corner accent choices include the Foster holly — I. x attenuata “Foster #2,” and “Savannah.” The Foster holly has a more narrow columnar growth habit up to 20 feet tall, while the Savannah holly grows a bit wider and taller. Both are excellent berry producers. And don’t forget about our native standard yaupon holly, which can serve as a large shrub or a small evergreen tree.
There are also blue and red hollies on the market. The blue series: I. x meserveae struggles a bit in the heat of Arkansas summers and would benefit from a bit of shade in the heat of the day. The blue group grows 6-12 feet in height and gets the “blue” connotation from a bluish winter coloration. They are a more popular group of shrubs in the northern climates, but will do well in the right location here. The red hollies are so named because of the reddish color of the new foliage. The red hollies include Oakleaf, Oakland and Little Red.
Aside from evergreen forms of hollies, there are some outstanding deciduous hollies. Deciduous hollies have small oval leaves during the growing season that fall off with the approach of winter, to expose their branching structure, and hopefully loads of berries. Ilex decidua, commonly called the possumhaw, is one group of deciduous hollies. Warren’s Red has long been a nursery favorite with bright, glossy red fruit. Other red-fruited forms include: Red Cascade, and Pocahontas. Byers Golden is a good yellow-fruited form, and Council Fire is an orange-berried form. Ilex vericillata is commonly called the winterberry holly.
There are numerous cultivars on the market, including: Christmas Cheer, Red Sprite and Winter Red. The female deciduous hollies really shine in the winter landscape.
A good indication that hollies are fairly easy to grow is how common we see them in our landscapes. For the most part, hollies have relatively few pest problems. In recent years, we have seen some scale, but it has not become widespread. Almost all of the hollies can be severely pruned if they have totally outgrown their site, and they will usually recover with time. To avoid that need, choose a plant that will fit your location at maturity.