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American Holly Ilex opaca

Other plants called American Holly:

Previously known as:

  • Ilex × attenuata
Phonetic Spelling
EE-leks oh-PAY-kah
This plant has low severity poison characteristics.
See below
Description

American holly is a woody, broadleaf evergreen tree in the Aquifoliaceae (holly) family that has generated numerous cultivars. In nature, it is found growing as an understory tree or shrub in moist, deciduous forests in central and southeastern United States. The genus name Ilex is in reference to the similarity of the evergreen leaves to Quercus ilex. The specific epithet opaca means dull, dark, or opaque in reference to the dullness of the leaf surface.

American holly grows in moist, neutral to acidic soils in full sun to partial shade. It will tolerate a range of soil textures, is moderately salt tolerant, and highly deer resistant. It will tolerate occasionally wet or dry soil, but not flooding. For optimum growth, avoid poorly drained soils. Protect it from cold winter winds and winter sun. In hot summer climates, give it afternoon shade. Being situated in too much shade will cause the plant foliage to lose density. In order to produce the bright red or orange berries that the holly is known for, both male and female plants must be present.  

The evergreen leaves and fruits on female plants are fragrant, and make for beautiful color and interest in a winter garden. Branches from this species are often used in the creation of Christmas wreaths.

The American holly tree grows slowly, ultimately reaching from 40 to 60 feet tall and 10 to 20 feet wide in an open conical to pyramidal shape with limbs all the way to the ground. It is ideal for privacy screens, barriers, and hedges. It is not recommended for small yards, but can be a beautiful specimen plant when given ample space to grow. The fruit of the tree is a wildlife food source so, when space permits, consider including it in a butterfly, pollinator, native, or children’s garden.  

Fire Risk: This plant has a high flammability rating and should not be planted within the defensible space of your home. Select plants with a low flammability rating for the sites nearest your home. 

Quick ID Hints:

  • Dull, dark green leaves are both entire and spiny.
  • Spines are evenly spaced and are long and sharp.
  • Leaves usually have a dull, dirty look.

Insects, Diseases, and Other Plant Problems: The leaves are typically yellow in alkaline soils. Twospotted spider mites, ash whitefly, soft scale insects, and leaf scorch. 

VIDEO: Part of the Native Plant Picks series from the North Carolina Sea Grant led Coastal Landscapes Initiative.

Additional video Ilex opaca created by Andy Pulte for “Landscape Plant Identification, Taxonomy and Morphology” a plant identification course offered by the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Tennessee.

 

Profile Video:
See this plant in the following landscapes:
Woodland Backyard Garden Walk
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Canary'
    female cultivar, a male pollinator in the area is needed
  • 'Carolina #2'
  • 'Crooneburg'
    more upright, narrower
  • 'Delia Bradley'
    upright, pyramidal, female cultivar, 20 to 30 feet high and 10 to 15 feet wide
  • 'Fallow'
  • 'Greenleaf'
    Abundant conical berries, female cultivar, 20 to 30 feet high and 10 to 15 feet wide
  • 'Howard'
    has few spines
  • 'Kleimi'
  • 'Miss Helen'
  • 'Steward's Silver Crown'
  • 'William Hawkins'
    Bushy, to 15 feet tall; also a dwarf version, 10 feet tall.
'Canary', 'Carolina #2', 'Crooneburg', 'Delia Bradley', 'Fallow' , 'Greenleaf', 'Howard', 'Kleimi', 'Miss Helen', 'Steward's Silver Crown', 'William Hawkins'
Tags:
#evergreen#poisonous#wildlife plant#slow growing#native tree#fragrant leaves#honey bees#nectar plant#salt tolerant#cover plant#winter interest#understory tree#year-round interest#showy fruits#hedges#specialized bees#food source wildlife#highly beneficial coastal plants#salt spray tolerant#cpp#wind tolerant#fire high flammability#NC native#children's garden#foundation planting#red fruits#playground plant#pollinator plant#Braham Arboretum#fantz#larval host plant#food source fall#food source herbage#food source nectar#food source pollen#Coastal FAC#bird friendly#nectar plant late spring#food source soft mast fruit#butterfly friendly#nectar plant early summer#understory shrub#nectar plant mid-spring#FACU Piedmont Mountains#cover plant winter#partial shade tolerant#Christmas decorations#problem for cats#problem for dogs#bee friendly#problem for horses#Audubon#henry’s elfin butterfly#food source winter#landscape plant sleuths course#storm damage resistant
 
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Canary'
    female cultivar, a male pollinator in the area is needed
  • 'Carolina #2'
  • 'Crooneburg'
    more upright, narrower
  • 'Delia Bradley'
    upright, pyramidal, female cultivar, 20 to 30 feet high and 10 to 15 feet wide
  • 'Fallow'
  • 'Greenleaf'
    Abundant conical berries, female cultivar, 20 to 30 feet high and 10 to 15 feet wide
  • 'Howard'
    has few spines
  • 'Kleimi'
  • 'Miss Helen'
  • 'Steward's Silver Crown'
  • 'William Hawkins'
    Bushy, to 15 feet tall; also a dwarf version, 10 feet tall.
'Canary', 'Carolina #2', 'Crooneburg', 'Delia Bradley', 'Fallow' , 'Greenleaf', 'Howard', 'Kleimi', 'Miss Helen', 'Steward's Silver Crown', 'William Hawkins'
Tags:
#evergreen#poisonous#wildlife plant#slow growing#native tree#fragrant leaves#honey bees#nectar plant#salt tolerant#cover plant#winter interest#understory tree#year-round interest#showy fruits#hedges#specialized bees#food source wildlife#highly beneficial coastal plants#salt spray tolerant#cpp#wind tolerant#fire high flammability#NC native#children's garden#foundation planting#red fruits#playground plant#pollinator plant#Braham Arboretum#fantz#larval host plant#food source fall#food source herbage#food source nectar#food source pollen#Coastal FAC#bird friendly#nectar plant late spring#food source soft mast fruit#butterfly friendly#nectar plant early summer#understory shrub#nectar plant mid-spring#FACU Piedmont Mountains#cover plant winter#partial shade tolerant#Christmas decorations#problem for cats#problem for dogs#bee friendly#problem for horses#Audubon#henry’s elfin butterfly#food source winter#landscape plant sleuths course#storm damage resistant
  • Attributes:
    Genus:
    Ilex
    Species:
    opaca
    Family:
    Aquifoliaceae
    Life Cycle:
    Woody
    Country Or Region Of Origin:
    Central & Eastern U.S.A
    Distribution:
    PA and MA south through FL, west to TX up through Midwest states
    Fire Risk Rating:
    high flammability
    Wildlife Value:
    This plant provides nectar for pollinators. It is a larval host plant for Henry's Elfin (Callophrys henrici) larvae which appear from February to May and have one flight. Adult Henry's Elfin butterflies feed on flower nectar. Its fruits are eaten by songbirds, wild turkeys, quail, white-tailed deer, squirrels and other small mammals. Honeybees are attracted to its tiny white flowers. This tree provides cover during the winter.
    Play Value:
    Wildlife Food Source
    Particularly Resistant To (Insects/Diseases/Other Problems):
    Moderately salt tolerant, highly deer resistant.
    Dimensions:
    Height: 40 ft. 0 in. - 60 ft. 0 in.
    Width: 10 ft. 0 in. - 20 ft. 0 in.
  • Whole Plant Traits:
    Plant Type:
    Native Plant
    Poisonous
    Tree
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Broadleaf Evergreen
    Habit/Form:
    Conical
    Open
    Pyramidal
    Growth Rate:
    Slow
    Maintenance:
    Low
    Texture:
    Medium
    Appendage:
    Spines
  • Cultural Conditions:
    Light:
    Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
    Partial Shade (Direct sunlight only part of the day, 2-6 hours)
    Soil Texture:
    Clay
    Loam (Silt)
    Shallow Rocky
    Soil pH:
    Acid (<6.0)
    Neutral (6.0-8.0)
    Soil Drainage:
    Good Drainage
    Moist
    Occasionally Dry
    Occasionally Wet
    Available Space To Plant:
    3 feet-6 feet
    NC Region:
    Coastal
    Mountains
    Piedmont
    USDA Plant Hardiness Zone:
    5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
  • Fruit:
    Fruit Color:
    Orange
    Red/Burgundy
    Fruit Value To Gardener:
    Fragrant
    Showy
    Display/Harvest Time:
    Fall
    Winter
    Fruit Type:
    Berry
    Fruit Length:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Width:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Description:
    Bright red or orange berry-like drupes appear on female plants after proper pollination. Persist on tree from September through February. Both sexes must be present to produce fruit (dioecious).
  • Flowers:
    Flower Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Green
    White
    Flower Inflorescence:
    Cyme
    Insignificant
    Flower Value To Gardener:
    Fragrant
    Showy
    Flower Bloom Time:
    Spring
    Summer
    Flower Size:
    1-3 inches
    Flower Description:
    The American Holly is dioecious (male and female flowers are on separate trees). It has greenish-white flowers bloom April-June (male flowers in 3-12 flowered clusters and female flowers solitary or in 2's or 3's). Infloreescence is staminate a cyme, and pistillate single.
  • Leaves:
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Broadleaf Evergreen
    Leaf Color:
    Green
    Leaf Feel:
    Prickly
    Leaf Value To Gardener:
    Showy
    Deciduous Leaf Fall Color:
    Brown/Copper
    Gold/Yellow
    Leaf Type:
    Simple
    Leaf Arrangement:
    Alternate
    Leaf Shape:
    Elliptical
    Oblong
    Leaf Margin:
    Entire
    Hairs Present:
    No
    Leaf Length:
    1-3 inches
    Leaf Width:
    1-3 inches
    Leaf Description:
    Its thick, leathery, alternate, simple, deep green leaves (2-4" long) have spiny marginal teeth. Leaves are alternate, simple, oblong to elliptic, coriaceous, and have an apical spine.
  • Bark:
    Bark Color:
    Light Brown
    Light Gray
    Red/Burgundy
    White
    Surface/Attachment:
    Smooth
    Bark Description:
    Light gray-white and smooth bark, may be splotched with red or tan lichens or warty.
  • Stem:
    Stem Color:
    Gray/Silver
    Stem Is Aromatic:
    No
    Stem Description:
    Stems are a greenish-gray color.
  • Landscape:
    Landscape Location:
    Coastal
    Landscape Theme:
    Butterfly Garden
    Children's Garden
    Native Garden
    Pollinator Garden
    Design Feature:
    Barrier
    Hedge
    Screen/Privacy
    Specimen
    Attracts:
    Bees
    Butterflies
    Pollinators
    Small Mammals
    Songbirds
    Specialized Bees
    Resistance To Challenges:
    Deer
    Salt
    Storm damage
    Wind
    Problems:
    Poisonous to Humans
    Problem for Cats
    Problem for Dogs
    Problem for Horses
  • Poisonous to Humans:
    Poison Severity:
    Low
    Poison Symptoms:
    Nausea, vomiting (not in horses), diarrhea, depression.
    Poison Toxic Principle:
    Illicin, possibly saponic glycosides, and triterpenoids.
    Causes Contact Dermatitis:
    No
    Poison Part:
    Fruits