Guides & Resources

Learn All About American Holly

Adult - Beginner

Left-center is the Garden’s largest American holly gleaming and green in the Rose Garden on a late November afternoon.  In fact, it is green—evergreen—year-round, discretely shedding a few of its oldest leaves every autumn. American holly is native to the eastern U.S. but only occasional to OH and mainly delimited to our southern counties. So why don’t we see any red fruits on this tree? Because hollies are dioeceous—of two houses—and this “house” produces only male flowers.  Which, naturally, won’t grow fruits.

And here is the other house, found atop the flagstone staircase on our Japanese Garden hillside.  It is about two decades old and is one of an elegant and worth-visiting row of fruiting female plants. American hollies bloom in May and let their bitter fruits slowly develop and persist into winter, thus engendering their traditional associations with our beautiful brace of winter holidays of persistence, thanksgiving and new hope. 

This native holly makes an excellent wildlife plant. Resident birds “save” their fruits for deep winter sustenance while returning waxwings depend on them for emergency post-migratory energy. And our catbirds love them for nesting! 

BTW, with this “two houses” concept, if you are planting American holly do plant at least one pollinator boy along with the girls, or you won’t see any berries for the holidays.

Not just the berries but also American holly leaves evoke a comforting sense of wintry cheer.  But in person they are spiky, leathery, unpleasant things.  That’s bad—no, that’s good: leaves that are beautiful to look at (good), but bad for any up-close and personal interaction, meaning they’re deer proof (good).  Two goods to just one bad … we win!

American hollies earned their first love in the New World by looking like a Christmas plant of long standing with our first European pilgrims: the English holly (Ilex aquifolium).  English holly has glossier leaves that make it visually a little bit dressier, and that’s part of the reason why today there are hundreds of their cultivars for trade contrasted to just handfuls for its American cousin. We have some English holly on campus, and you can easily find them for your own gardens.  But they are unfamiliar to our local birds and animals and pollinators, which means to me that they might not be as wonderful to a green gardener here in Cleveland.  Green actions can be that simple—the gardener’s holly-fied version of “shopping local.”

American holly fruits are comprised of a pulpy flesh encasing four hard, nut-like seeds. That makes them drupes even though we sometimes call them berries.  Maybe that’s because “drupe” just doesn’t ring with holiday spirit?

Northeast Ohio is a great place to find American hollies, such as this ‘Canary’ cultivar, for your own garden. We even have a specialist holly grower in Ashtabula Co. (hint: their name has “holly” in it) that can supply your nursery with diverse American holly cultivars. American holly is an adaptable and cheerful plant to invite into our gardens that’s also a smart choice for greener living. Let’s hear it for an American original: the American holly!

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