American Holly -- More Important Than Ever

American Holly -- More Important Than Ever

The dynamics of our yard have changed.

Stump and naked ground where spruce once stood.

In our small neighborhood of small lots, the actions of neighbors can have a devastating impact on a landscape design and the wildlife that relies on it. This year, with justifiable reason, our neighbors took down a mature, kind of "fat" Norway spruce and removed a Leyland Cypress. The removal of the spruce was necessary because it had sort of eaten their tool shed (and you won't catch me weeping for the loss of a Leyland Cypress!). Since these two specimens were right next to each other, all of a sudden a major bird nesting spot and backdrop to our other plantings was gone. And, it seemed, almost overnight we had fewer birds spending time in our yard.

On the plus side, this upheaval has left our little American Holly


ilex opaca


much happier. [You can barely make out it's little head behind the coleus.] It still gets some shade, thanks to the large white pines to the south, but the amount of competition in the root zone has decreased dramatically. It now has the potential to become a much greater asset to our birds--much more quickly.

A holly cultivar with yellow berries.*

Aggressive management (mulching, compost, adequate water) of American Hollies can encourage growth of about 3 to 4 feet per year. At this point, ours is only about 4' tall. In the late winter of last year, I did some aggressive pruning of the roots because of possible girdling. Afterwards, I punctured the soil of the root zone--particularly where I had cut the roots--and stuffed compost in the holes, then applied new mulch. We were rewarded with healthier leaf development--next year should be a good year for our little tree.

American Hollies are not particularly tough trees, but in home gardens they can be an essential element of shelter for birds and small mammals in the southeastern and mid-Atlantic states. Reaching a typical height of 25-50 feet (specimens have reached heights of 100' or more), American Hollies can serve as the top layer of an evergreen habitat area. Cultivars can be selected if a smaller size is necessary. Decimation of our native hemlocks is making these hollies even more important than they were previously, and homeowner care of a couple of specimens can be essential to maintaining mature populations. These trees are not walnut tolerant, they don't tolerate fire well, they aren't so fond of drought--and yet they are the hardiest broadleaf evergreen tree available in the southeastern United States. They tolerate shade very well, though fruiting is more pronounced when the trees receive a bit of sun. These hollies also deal with salt spray well.

Bloom time is anywhere from March to June, depending on your zone and the severity of winter. Like all hollies, both a male and a female are necessary to fruit production. Holly gurus recommend one male to three female trees. Fruits ripen between September and December and stay on the trees most of the winter unless they are consumed by wildlife. But for me, the value of the berries is secondary to the value of the foliage. Evergreens provide protection during storms and from predators year-round, and nesting sites during spring/summer. Right now, we have berries on our winterberry holly, red chokeberry and green hawthorn--and not a one of those plants has a leaf to hide the birds who come to eat the berries.

The wood of the American Holly is very finely textured and nearly white. The slow growth of the tree makes it inappropriate for lumber harvest for the most part, however. The wood is tough, but not necessarily strong. Smaller projects like inlays or handles may use holly, and it takes stains exceptionally well, even black. It has been used for black piano keys and violin pegs.

*Holly cultivar photo courtesy


-- Kevin Campbell. See his blog



LBJ Wildflower Center


USDA Forest Service



Riparian Zone = Property Protection

Riparian Zone = Property Protection

Garden Kitty

Garden Kitty