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American holly




American holly

Ilex opaca ‘Merry Christmas’ which grows up to 40-50 ft. high x 18- 40 ft. wide.
Photo by Bob Polomski

Deck the Halls

I consider our American holly (Ilex opaca) – not the English holly (Ilex aquifolium) – our signature holly of Christmas. It can be found growing wild from Massachusetts south to Florida and west to Texas and Missouri and north to Tennessee and Indiana. It¹s commonly found as an understory tree, growing in mixed hardwood forests in a variety of habitats that include dry woodlands, stream and creek banks, and even swamps.

American holly grows slowly, which is unfortunate for nursery producers and consumers. Nevertheless, it was introduced into the trade in 1744 and presently, there are more than 1,000 cultivars. Some cultivars will exceed 50 ft. in height, while others, such as ‘Maryland Dwarf,’ grows 3-5 ft. high and 8 ft. wide. The fruit on female American hollies is commonly red, but some cultivars bear orange or yellow berries.

In the past, people in Germany and England called the prickly holly varieties “he-hollies” and the smooth-leaved kinds “she-hollies.” (Interestingly, English hollies produce out-of-reach, smooth-margined adult leaves at the top of mature trees.) The type of leaf brought indoors determined who was to dominate the home in the upcoming year. If the holly leaf had a smooth margin, the wife was in charge. (She should be if she was able to reach the spineless leaves in the uppermost reaches of the tree). If the holly was prickly, the husband ruled the roost for the year.

So, while some of you are contemplating the gender of the hollies in your landscape or neighborhood, I am heading outside to remove a few of the lower branches of my American hollies in the backyard. It's not too late to deck the halls with boughs of prickly he-holly sprigs.

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