The Reverend Nancy L. J. Cox

American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Given in thanksgiving for the ministry of The Reverend Nancy L. J. Cox, Rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, October 2019.

Description:  This lovely slow growing evergreen tree can reach heights of 30-50 feet with an overall shape that resembles a pyramid.  Older trees become less pyramidal.  It can be single or multi-trunked.  It is more likely to be 15-30 feet under normal landscape conditions.  There are more than 1000 named cultivars of this tree.

Leaves:  Deep green, thick and leathery, 2-4 inches long with spiny marginal teeth, making gloves a necessity when handling them.  

Flowers:  The American Holly is dioecious (male and female flowers are on separate trees). The greenish-white flowers bloom May-June (male flowers in 3-12 flowered clusters and female flowers solitary or in twos or threes). It must have trees of both sexes in order to produce its fruit.

Fruit: Bright red or orange berries (drupes to 1/4-1/2 inch diameter) which ripen in fall on pollinated female trees and persist on the tree through the winter. 

Habitat: The American Holly is native to the eastern United States and is found from Florida to as far north as Massachusetts. This tree thrives in the mountains, piedmont, and coastal plains of North Carolina. 

The leaves will yellow in alkaline soils.  It grows in full-sun to part-shade, but will do best if it receives part-afternoon shade in hot summer climates, and protection from cold winter winds. 

Wildlife value:  It supports several butterflies and insects and the red berries are eaten by birds, deer, and small mammals. The berries are toxic to humans if ingested in large quantity.  

Uses:  The evergreen attractive deep green leaves and bright red berries make this a popular specimen tree in landscape designs.  It is widely used in Christmas decorations.  

History: When the pilgrims first landed the evergreen leaves and red berries reminded them of their native English Holly, so they began using it in holiday decorations and gave it the nickname of Christmas Holly.  Native Americans used the berries for buttons and barter.  This tree was a favorite of George Washington, and trees he planted can still be seen at Mount Vernon.  The first scientific observation of the American Holly Tree was recorded in 1744.   


NC State Extension Service online forestry resources.