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Your Complete Guide to All Species of Holly

To the untrained eye, holly is holly. It’s something associated with Christmas, sometimes found in nature, and that’s about it. However, to the trained eye, holly provides access to a beautiful, stunning world of greenery that can bring your house and garden to life.

In today’s guide, we’re going to dive deep into the world of holly trees and plants, detailing everything it has to offer. This will probably be the most comprehensive guide you’ll ever find on holly, so if you’re ready, let’s get straight into it.

The Lowdown on Holly Plants

Holly branches with red berries

Holly plants are available in two forms; holly trees and holly scrubs. They are both part of the Ilex genus family of plants, which happens to be the only genus of the Aquifoliaceae family. That’s Latin. Within this specific genus, there are around 480 evergreen and deciduous plants. Damn, that’s a lot of holly.

Holly plants can be found all over the world in both temperate and tropical regions of the planet. Nearly all varieties will grow berries or fruit of some kind that appear in the autumn season of wherever they’re growing.

Berries and fruits can come in all different colors, including pink, black, yellow, white, and most commonly, or at least the most well-known version of berry, red. Holly plants are also relatively easy to look after and use in any kind of garden situation. They work well with the pruning process.

So, if you’re looking for some unique type of topiary or want a natural-looking green fence, this could be the type of plant you’ve been looking for. Most varieties do come with traditional-looking glossy leaves with the spikey teeth at the end, and pretty much all types are dioicous. This means if you want fruit, you need both male and female varieties of the plant.

If you’re looking for the most traditional, Christmas-looking variety of holly, you’ll want American Holly, also known as Ilex opaca, or the English version known aptly as English Holly, or Ilex Aquifolium.

A Brief Warning About Holly
Every single holly berry in all varieties is toxic. We’re not saying this to scare; it’s just a fact. The degree in which a holly berry is poisonous will vary dramatically and depend on several variables.

The poison in these berries is made from a caffeine-like alkaloid, and don’t worry; you’d have to eat a ton of berries for it to be fatal. However, you can get other symptoms, like vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and all kinds of nausea. It’s basically not very pleasant.

With this in mind, if you have pets or small children, you may want to keep them away from your holly plants to ensure there’s little risk of them being consumed and making them ill.

The Complete Guide of Holly Plants

Okay, with that out the way, it’s time for the crème de la crème; the definitive list of all the species. We’re going to explore everything you need to know about each, helping you choose the ones you want in your own home. Let’s go.

American Holly – Ilex Opaca

 American holly

If you can’t get hold of English Holly, then American Holly is the next best thing, and by far the closest variety to the most traditional type. If you want to make holly-based Christmas decorations, this is the holly species for you. With spikey-toothed leaves and red berries galore, this is it.

The pros of this plant include the ability to reproduce with itself and fruit berries since the male and female flowers will appear on the same plant. If you want to spice things up, you can get the yellow fruit version, known as the ‘Canary’ variety.

These plants are typical with Southern and Eastern parts of the US. They are classed with the USDA zones five through nine and will grow anywhere between 15 and 60-feet, depending on the growing conditions and pruning process. These plants thrive in full sun or part shade environments.

English Holly – Ilex Aquifolium

English holly

This is the crème de la crème when it comes to holly. When someone says Christmas Holly, this is the one that will come to mind. Easily the most recognizable and famous holly varieties in the world, this hugely widespread plant can be found all over Europe these days and is found under many names, including European Holly, Common Holly, and even Oregon Holly.

Most varieties will come with variegated leaves and grow red fruit, but some varieties will offer a unique take of golden, apricot-colored berries. There are plenty of other subspecies and varieties, such as Tsuru Holly, which have appeared as a result of crossbreeding.

Natively grown in Asia, Europe, and even parts of Africa, these plants tend to grow between the range of 15 to 50 feet, have a USDA growing zone of 7 to 9, and thrive in full sun and part shade environments.

Chinese Holly – Ilex Cornuta

Chinese holly

Commonly referred to as ‘Horned Holly,’ Chinese Holly is an evergreen shrub variety that excels in dry landscapes and gardens. If you don’t get much rain or live high above the water table, this may be the kind of holly you’ve been looking for.

The name stems from the horn-like spines on the leaves that grow upwards in a curved manner. This is much like the horns of a bull. Due to the dense nature in which this holly grows, if you’re growing a hedge for privacy reasons, few holly species do it better.

As the name suggests, you can find this holly natively in China and Korea, with growth heights ranging between 6 and 25 feet. Full sun or part shade is recommended for this holly, and it holds a USDA zone rating of seven to nine.

Hawaiian Holly – Ilex Anomala

Hawaiian Holly

We’re traveling the world with our holly here, aren’t we? Of course, Hawaiian Holly is native to the tropical island of the east coast of the USA and in the Pacific Ocean. Here, it goes by many names, including Aiea, kāwaʻu, kä’awa’u, or Hawai’i holly.

Interestingly enough, this holly comes with purple-black berries, which make them very much like the Inkberry, but more on that later. If you’re looking for a unique color that sets it apart from the traditional holly plants you know and love, this could be a fantastic option.

It can grow between 30 and 40 feet, ideally in full sun or part shade conditions, and it holds USDA growing zones 11 and 12. While this doesn’t look like traditional holly, it’s still an incredibly fine-looking plant.

Inkberry – Ilex Glabra

Inkberry holly

In hand with the holly species above, Inkberry is one of the only holly species that grows black fruit. Although this only happens on the female plants, it does so to quite a striking effect that’s unique, interesting, and enjoyable to experience.

Other varieties stem from this, such as Ivory Queen and Leucocarpa, but these only come with white fruits. These plants are amazing, and they’re great if you have children or pets playing in the garden. You won’t find a single spine on any of the leaves!

However, be warned. These plants are prone to growing suckers, which means if you let them have a chance, they can quickly spread and take over your whole garden! Don’t forget to prune to stop this from happening! Growing between four and eight feet tall, sitting in the USDA growing zones five through nine and native to East and south-central USA, you can’t go wrong here.

Dahoon Holly – Ilex Cassine

Dahoon Holly

There’s no denying that Dahoon Holly is beautiful. If your garden or land tends to be a bit wetter and damper than most and you’re looking for striking dark green leaves and an amazingly vivacious berry, put this variety of holly at the top of your list for considerations.

There are three varieties of this species of holly that can be found, known as Cassine, Angustifolia, and Mexicana. This holly has USDA growing zones 5 to 10 covered, and it can grow massively between the average range of 20-40 feet. It’s most commonly found in the Caribbean, Mexico, and some eastern areas of the USA.

As always, full sun and part shade would be the ideal growing conditions for this species of holly.

Finetooth Holly- Ilex Serrata

Finetooth Holly

Finetooth is another of the rarer deciduous species of holly. This species will handle colder conditions far better than most, which is ideal if you’re living in that kind of climate. Also referred to as Japanese holly or simply ‘deciduous holly,’ this variety comes with the classic red berries, although there are yellow berry varieties available.

If you really want to push the boat when it comes to color, look for the ‘Sparkleberry’ variety, which is a cross between this and the common winterberry. Native to China and Japan, you can expect these holly plants to grow between six and 15 feet.

As you’d expect, they grow best in full sun to part shade and hold a USDA growing zone of 5 through to 8. Light and airy, these holly plants are simply wonderful and amazing to look at.

Japanese Holly – Ilex Crenata

Japanese holly

Okay, so while Finetooth holly is also known as ‘Japanese holly’ in some parts of the world, there is actually a variety known as Japanese holly, so hopefully, that won’t make things too confusing. This is an alternative species of holly also known as box-leaved holly because it looks very similar to boxwood shrubs and hedging, which is traditionally found in Europe.

Considered to be invasive in its native countries, if you’re looking to grow beautiful-looking topiaries, also known as a ‘living hedge,’ you probably won’t need to look further than this. Growing between three and ten feet, keep on top of these holly plants, and they’ll look incredible.

Like, really incredible.

Caroline Holly – Ilex Ambigua

Caroline Holly

One of the deciduous varieties of holly, what makes this variety so special, is that it can grow very well in sand-like soil. This is why it also dubs the name’ sand holly.’ As with all holly, you’ll find this plant growing vibrant red berries in the autumn that tend to fall off very easily.

You may find this attracts some forms of wildlife, like foxes or badgers, but this does mean they look a little boring in winter. Typically found in the south-eastern parts of the US and sat with the USDA zones seven through nine, these plants tend to reach between 15-20 feet and grow best in full sun or part shade.

Catberry – Ilex Mucronata

Catberry Holly

Catberry used to be known as Nemopanthus Mucronatus but was changed to become a member of the Ilex family. If you have a damp garden, this shrub could be perfect for you.

It grows slightly differently to most holly; there’s no spikey leaves to be found here, just bright green ones. The berries grow on near the end of the longer branches. You may find many birds attracted to these plants, especially migratory species that come from international locations.

When shopping for catberry, you may also see the names ‘mountain holly’ or ‘cat berry,’ but these all mean the same thing. Growing between six and ten feet tall, and found mainly in the northeast of the US and hardy to zone four in the USDA ranking, you can’t really go wrong with the wonderful catberry plant.

Longstalked Holly – ilex Pedunculosa

Longstalked Holly

With the fruit located at the end of the long stems (stalks) of this holly plant, the name shouldn’t be too confused to get your head around. They’re very colorful plants with traditional green leaves and a red berry aesthetic. If you live in an urban area, these plants are great.

Uniquely, this is because these plants deal very well at handling pollution, and salt, which makes them thrive in coastal locations as well. Found through China, Taiwan, and Japan, these plants grow around 10 to 30 feet, usually towards the upper end of the scale, and sit in the USDA growing zones of 5 to 8.

Yerba Mate – Ilex Paraguariensis

Yerba Mate holly

Interestingly, Yerba Mate is a species of holly plant. Tea made from this plant is extremely popular in South American countries, such as Argentina. It’s drunk primarily through gourds with holey straws that are used to filter the hot water through the leaves.

There are plenty of health benefits to drinking this tea, so it may be worth thinking about if you’re living a healthy lifestyle. Grown only in acidic soil, this plant is grown as a tress and will take a few years before it gets to a stage where you can start drinking it. Growing up to 60 feet, you’re also going to want to make sure you have enough space for it!

Common Winterberry – Ilex Verticillata

Winterberry team

If you’re on the hunt for color in your garden and want to transform your landscape into a winter wonderland, you may not need to look further than the common winterberry. Is the name a bit of a giveaway? These plants are famed for growing a ton of stunning scarlet berries that create an amazing vista of greens and reds.

Native to Eastern North America, this variety may also be found under a range of other popular names, such as Canada Holly, Michigan Holly, Black Alder holly, Coralberry, Swamp Holly, and many more.

The standard recommendations are for full sun or part shade for the best growing results. This plant reaches heights that range between 6 and 12 feet, and it has a USDA plant zone of 3 to 9. Be warned, this plant is known for growing suckers and may take over in a short time.

Lusterleaf Holly – Ilex Latifolia

Lusterleaf Holly

While most holly plants will come with berries, this variety uniquely grows them; the best way to describe of which would be in little clusters. Interestingly, these berries are used to make tea in China, and while not very bright, the unique growing method of them creates a visual effect like no other.

Grown natively in China and Japan, you may also find names like Tarajo holly, or just Tarajo on its own. Averagely, you’ll find growing heights sit around the 15 to 25 feet mark, but in really good conditions, they’ve been known to reach up to 60-feet. Damn.

Myrtle-Leaved Holly – Ilex Myrtifolia

Myrtle-Leaved Holly

There’s not much to say about the old Myrtle-Leaved holly. Some experts and botanists will claim this type to be a member of the Dahoon holly family. The two are usually crossed with each other.

Common in the south-eastern parts of the US and sitting in the USDA growing zones of 7 to 10, these plants can reach up to 40 feet, but will mostly sit within the 15 to 25 feet range.

Small-Leaved Holly – Ilex Canariensis

Small-Leaved Holly

Finally, to finish up our list of holly species, we have the quaint small-leaved hollies. They’re only found in very special, remote, and limited places in the world, such as the Macaronesian Islands and the Canarias Islands off the coast of Spain and Africa. These are true forest-dwelling hollies.

With beautiful berries full of color and clusters that mean they can’t be missed, these max-growth plants of 32 feet have USDA growing zone rankings of 11 and 12. It’s very hard not to fall in love with these holly plants.

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