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Genus Ilex (Holly)

Ilex Ilex crenata 'Glory' Photo/Illustration: Michelle Gervais
EYE-leks Common Name: Holly
Ilex is a large genus of more than 400 species of evergreen and deciduous trees, shrubs, and climbers from woodland regions the world over. Hollies are grown for their leaves, which are often spiny and glossy, and their colorful berries, which often attract birds. Flowers are small, cup-shaped, and rather inconspicuous and are borne from spring to early summer. Male and female plants are usually needed for fruiting. Grow hollies in a woodland garden, as specimens, as hedges, or in rock gardens, depending on the species.
Noteworthy characteristics: Foliage is often spiny. The round or oval berries can be red, black, white, orange, or yellow. Berries may cause mild stomach upset if eaten.
Care: Hollies need moist but well-drained, humusy soil of moderate fertility in full sun (especially for variegated plants) or partial shade. It is best to plant or move hollies in early spring. Prune in late winter or early spring if necessary.
Propagation: Germination may take 2 or 3 years, but seeds should be sown in autumn in a cold frame. Semi-ripe cuttings can be taken in summer or early fall.
Problems: Aphids can attack young shoots. Evergreen species may be troubled by scale insects and leaf miners. Phytophthora root rot can occur.

Species, varieties and cultivars for genus Ilex

no image available Ilex 'Nellie R. Stevens'
('Nellie R. Stevens' holly)
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Hardiness Zones: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

This vigorous evergreen holly bears abundant, shiny scarlet fruit. Use it as a screen, a background plant, or as a specimen.

Ilex × meserveae  Ilex × meserveae 
(Blue holly)
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Hardiness Zones: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Blue holly, so named for the glossy blue-green leaves, is a dense, vigorous shrub that can reach 15 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Insignificant flowers bloom in late spring. Female plants have glossy red fruit. There are many cultivars available.

Ilex aquifolium Ilex aquifolium
(English holly)
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Hardiness Zones: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

This tall, pyramidal, evergreen tree may be grown as a large shrub. Its evergreen, spiny foliage is leathery and glossy. Insignificant, though fragrant, flowers bloom in spring followed by red, orange, or yellow drupes that attract birds. Many cultivars are available.

no image available Ilex cornuta
(Chinese holly)
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Hardiness Zones: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Chinese holly is a round, evergreen shrub with glossy, spiny leaves and large red berries. It grows to about 15 feet tall and wide.

Ilex crenata Ilex crenata
(Japanese holly)
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Hardiness Zones: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

This dense, evergreen holly reaches 6 to 10 feet tall and at least as wide. The species is rarely used in landscapes, but there are many cultivars available with more interesting shape and color. This plant grows slowly, but can be invasive. Its dark green leaves are lustrous and the black fruit is hidden beneath them, so it is not obvious as in other hollies. Use Japanese holly in foundation plantings, hedges, beds and borders, or formal gardens.

Ilex decidua Ilex decidua
(Possumhaw holly)
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Hardiness Zones: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

While the fresh green leaves and smooth, light gray stems are enough to make possumhaw holly an attractive shrub, the appeal of this plant is more evident in late fall. Bunches of small berries form along the branches and turn bright red as the leaves fall off. Only female plants bear fruit (plant at least one male plant for best berry production), which finally becomes palatable to wildlife in the early spring. Possumhaw tends to sucker from the roots, so it's best to allow it to form a multitrunk screen.

Ilex glabra Ilex glabra
(Gallberry, Inkberry holly)
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Hardiness Zones: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

The inkberry holly has narrow, glossy, spineless leaves and tiny black fruits. The narrow foliage produces a much finer texture than that of many other hollies. A slow-growing, evergreen shrub native to eastern North America, it produces greenish white, inconspicuous flowers in spring, followed by jet black drupes the size of peas. The fruit can persist until the next spring unless eaten by birds. Ilex glabra is rather more casual in form than the spinier hollies and can be used in borders, around ponds, as foundation plantings, or in woodland gardens.

Ilex opaca Ilex opaca
(American holly)
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Hardiness Zones: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

This erect, evergreen large shrub or tree reaches 40 to 50 feet in height and 20 to 40 feet wide. Leathery dark green leaves have pointy, scalloped edges. Small green berries appear in late summer, maturing to crimson by autumn and persisting through the winter. Some ripen to yellow or orange. Use American holly as a specimen tree or in a woodland garden.

no image available Ilex serrata 'Sundrops'
(Japanese winterberry)
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Hardiness Zones: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

This compact deciduous holly reaches up to 8 feet tall with equal or greater spread. Pale yellow berries ripen in September and stand out on reddish-brown branches, persisting into early winter and attracting birds.

Ilex verticillata Ilex verticillata
(Black alder, Winterberry)
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Hardiness Zones: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

This plant is a suckering shrub or small tree with toothed, pointy, bright green leaves. It bears white flowers in spring, which are followed by spherical dark red to scarlet berries that persist through the winter. Some fruit ripens to yellow or orange.

Ilex verticillata 'Sunsplash' Ilex verticillata 'Sunsplash'
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Hardiness Zones: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

The one thing that I always thought would make winterberry a more interesting plant is better foliage. What the plant does have are vibrant red berries in fall and winter, so most of us forgive its unremarkable appearance during the other six months of the year. The cultivar ‘Sunsplash’, however, lets you have your cake and eat it, too. It’s beautiful not only when it’s fruiting but also during the rest of the year, when its bright gold, white, and green foliage shines brightly. Unlike many other variegated plants that just have coloring around the margins of their leaves, the foliage of ‘Sunsplash’, as its name implies, is literally splashed all over with color.

Ilex vomitoria Ilex vomitoria
(Yaupon holly)
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Hardiness Zones: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Yaupon holly is an upright, irregularly branched, evergreen shrub or small tree with ovate, toothed, shiny dark-green leaves and gray branches. Profuse, transluscent scarlet fruit persists through the winter.