American holly normally grows to heights of 15 to 30 feet tall, but records indicate mature heights of up to 100 feet. On the poor soils of coastal beaches, this holly may never exceed shrub size. The bark of it is smooth, and grayish to grayish-brown. The dense branches of this holly grow nearly horizontal in a spreading crown, which takes on a pyramidal silhouette.The evergreen foliage is stiff and leathery in texture, with large, remotely spined teeth. The leaves are arranged alternately. They are 2 to 4 inches long, satin green and smooth above, and yellowish-green below.Small, axillary, greenish-white flowers bloom from April to June. Like most others in the holly genus, American holly is dioecious. Pistillate flowers emerge in small clusters from one plant, while staminate flower clusters develop on another. Newly established plants will not flower for 4 to 7 years; prior to flowering there is no practical means of determining the gender of a plant. Bright red, rarely orange or yellow, globular fruit mature from September to October, but may be retained on the plant into the following spring. The berry-like fruit is about 1/3 inch in diameter, and contains 4 to 9 small nutlets.
The attractive evergreen foliage and bright red fruit of this small tree make it a very popular for landscaping. The same attributes that allow this tree to be a desirable ornamental make it one of the most sought after greens for Christmas decoration. The firm bright red berries are consumed by white-tail deer and 18 species of birds. The dense foliage also provides cover and nesting habitat for various songbirds.
Adaptation and Distribution
American holly grows from Massachusetts to Florida, west to Texas and Missouri, and is adapted to a wide range of site conditions. It grows best on well drained, sandy soils, but will tolerate those which are somewhat poorly drained. This small tree has good shade tolerance, but does well in direct sun. Although this species is often found growing on coastal sand dunes, it is not very salt spray tolerant.
USDA NRCS Plant Materials Program (2002). Plant fact sheet for American holly (ilex opaca). Retrieved from http://plants.usda.gov/java/factSheet
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