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Featured Plant

Ilex aquifolium


Scientific Name: Ilex aquifolium

Common Names: Holly

Family: Aquifoliaceae

Plant Type: Evergreen Tree to 25m

Environment: Prefers maritime climates; doesn't like extreme cold or heat. Needs good light to thrive and fruit at its best, but can also tolerate partial and even deep shade. Needs moist but well-drained soil. The Hillier Manual puts it best when it says, “I. aquifolium is 'adaptable to most soils and indifferent to sun and shade'.”

Bloom: Small, slightly fragrant white flowers appear in May and June

Uses: Good to use as a dominant shrub or small tree as they keep their structure for most of their lifespan, but can also work well in a 'supporting role' in your garden. I. aquifolium have a conical habit of growth and respond well to heavy pruning. Due to the spiny sharp tipped leaves, a good choice of plant for those areas of your home or garden where you would like to keep out 'others'.

Other: The holly 'berry' is not truly a berry at all, it is a drupe. A drupe is a fleshy fruit surrounding a seed. Peaches, plums, and cherries are also considered drupes. Aquifolium means 'with pointed leaves, spiny-leaved'. The female plants bear the glossy red berries (about 6mm in diameter). Native American people used Ilex opaca to symbolise courage and fierceness in battle by painting sprays of holly onto shields and jackets, or pinned to clothing prior to going into battle.


Ilex aquifolium can be found in the Temperate Asia GardenBeds 23E, 41).



Ilex aquifolium

“Deck the halls with boughs of holly, tra la la la la, la la la la.”

Pre-Christian societies celebrated the winter solstice with boughs of holly brought indoors to ward away evil spirits, a household custom continuing today for more benevolent reasons. American holly, Ilex opaca, grows from Canada to Florida. Hollies are not native to the western US. However, English holly, Ilex aquifolium, widely planted in the Pacific Northwest for decades, is now considered invasive.

Holly trees are dioecious, either female or male, and each must be planted to produce berries. Their leaves have a thick cuticle, often highly polished, with sharp tipped leaves and red berries in their axils. Flowers are greenish white. There are many cultivars, some with yellow or black berries; some have variegated leaves with highly spiny tips, or no spines at all. The bark is usually smooth and pale. The wood is creamy white, hard and clear of knots, excellent for inlaid work and dyes. Black piano keys are often made of holly wood.

Ilex cassine or “Yaupon” holly is a shrubby species from the southern states whose berries can be used as a purgative. Its dried, crumbled leaves are filled with caffeine and make an excellent tea. Ilex paraguariensis from Brazil and Argentina is the source of “Yerba Mate,” an ancient and still popular stimulant made from crushed holly leaves and boiling water.


Photos by Joanne Taylor, Text by Docent Kathy McNeil, Profile by David Kruse-Pickler