Holly’s big plant family includes hundreds of varieties that range from 70-foot-tall trees to petite shrubs less than a foot tall. Nearly all of these variations can be sorted into four basic groups: English holly (glossy, spiny foliage); American holly (similar to its English cousin, but with duller leaves); Chinese holly (large glossy, spineless varieties); and hybrid holly. In other words, there is probably a holly in this diverse plant group that suits your landscape.
The diverse holly family includes trees and shrubs that come in a variety of forms: columnar, pyramidal, rounded, or weeping. Their foliage varies, too, ranging from large, spiny leaves to smooth, small leaves that resemble boxwood. Even holly’s berries come in a variety of hues that include red, pink, blue, orange, yellow, and white.
Holly provides year-round interest while serving as part of a hedge or perennial border, or in foundation plantings. Evergreen varieties take center stage in winter when they anchor leafless garden beds. Tall evergreen hollies are good for creating a dense hedge or screen. When used as barrier plants, holly varieties with spiny leaves are nearly impenetrable. No matter where you plant holly, if pollinated its colorful berries add splashes of winter color and food for birds.
Many holly plants will produce colorful fruit that remains in place for three to six months of the year, depending on the density of the wildlife population. Whether you want to showcase these colorful berries in the yard or use them to perk up holly branches in an arrangement, you need to have separate male and female plants near each other in the landscape.
Female plants depend upon the males for pollination in order to produce berries. Check plant tags carefully when purchasing holly to ensure you buy at least one male plant to pollinate 10 to 20 female cultivars. Choosing a male and female of the same variety helps make sure the plants bloom at the same time—a key factor if you expect bees and other pollinators to work their magic. Be careful about the resulting berries; if eaten by humans or pets, gastrointestinal distress may follow.
Holly Care Must-Knows
The best time to plant holly is in the spring, with plenty of warm weather on the horizon. Read plant tags carefully when selecting a planting site for holly. Some hollies prefer full sun, while there are evergreen varieties that grow best in areas where they receive part shade in winter. Most varieties prefer moist, well-drained loamy soil that is slightly acidic. Winterberry, on the other hand, grows well in boggy soil. This plant appreciates a moderate amount of water; usually rain will do the trick. Provide supplemental waterings on a weekly basis during times of drought. Fertilize in spring and fall to keep plants at their best.
Holly shrubs don't typically require pruning unless they become unwieldy or you want to create a hedge or geometric shape. On the question of whether or not (and when) to prune, the holly family is so diverse that it's impossible to give one answer that will work for all varieties. In general, wait until dormancy for most hollies. Pruning in late fall or early winter means you can use the clippings in holiday arrangements or wreaths. On the other hand, if you prune in late winter you can enjoy seeing the berries outside. Either way, the trade-off is you'll be removing old wood required for blooming—and therefore future berries. There is no single right answer. Just don't prune in late summer when the plant will put out new growth that will die when frosts arrive. Worth noting: Late spring is a good time to prune holly bushes into hedges.
More Varieties of Holly
'Blue Boy' holly
Ilex x meservae 'Blue Boy' has deeply hued foliage and stems. It's extra hardy. Plant this variety next to female hollies as a pollenizer. It grows 6 to 8 feet tall and 3 to 6 feet wide. Zones 5–9
'Blue Girl' holly
This variety is an exceptionally hardy holly with dense blue-green foliage and bright red berries from fall through winter. Plant 'Blue Boy' nearby as a pollenizer. Zones 5–9
'Jersey Delight' holly
Ilex opaca 'Jersey Delight' is a female variety with bright red fruits. Plant with 'Jersey Knight' for fruit set. It grows 50 feet tall and 40 feet wide. Zones 5-9
Ilex verticillata is a deciduous holly strung with big crops of bright red berries on winter-bare branches. It tolerates wet soil and is very hardy. It grows to 8 feet tall and wide. Zones 3-9
'Winter Gold' holly
This selection of lex verticillata shows off clusters of golden-yellow berries in late fall. The plant tolerates a wide variety of soils, though it does best in moist, well-drained ground. It can grow 8 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Zones 4-9