Sunday, April 21, 2013

An American Classic: American Holly

One of my favorite trees in our yard is the American holly (Ilex opaca). There’s a big one, maybe 50 feet tall, growing near the pond, just outside the picket fence. Right now it’s dropping its yellow leaves, replacing them with fresh green ones. I always wanted to have an American holly in my yard, and now, finally, I do.

I remember my first encounter with this native species. I got to know it in the ‘80s when my parents bought a little piece of an old quail-hunting plantation north of Tallahassee. Small hollies grew among the live oaks on our acre, and I was immediately enamored of them. I liked their pale, smooth, lichen-spotted bark, and their rounded leaves, which were so much less prickly—so much gentler—than the exotic hollies that grew around the foundation of our house (and that my father regularly clipped into balls and domes). I just thought the little trees were so classic and classy, and when my father told me they were American hollies, I felt very proud (I was a rather patriotic kid).

It probably goes without saying that along with the bark and the leaves, I also liked the fruits of these little hollies. I’d never seen real holly berries before; I’d only seen pictures and drawings, and plastic representations that my mom used to decorate her Christmas wreaths. (The exotic hollies my father shaped into balls didn’t generally fruit.) Real holly berries--I couldn’t get over it!

When I bought my first house, in Atlanta, I wanted to plant an American holly in the backyard, but I couldn’t find one at any of the nurseries, though I looked and looked. Then Rob and I moved to Quincy, and we were so happy when we discovered we had that beautiful holly by the pond fence, and that the big holly had given us dozens of “babies,” sprinkled all about the yard.

Shortly after we moved in, a former owner of our house, Mr. Stinson, came to visit (he had not been back to the house in a long time), and he stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the big holly tree. Apparently he had planted it as a seedling more than 25 years before. I could tell by his expression that he was quietly rejoicing as he looked up at the tree. “It’s joined the canopy!” he said after a minute, clearly thrilled. And I understood his happiness. It’s a great thing to see something you did, an effort you made, come to fruition, pay off, make the world a little bit better. The tiny twig of a holly he had planted so long ago had become a tree, a grand tree—shading us, cleaning the air, providing food and shelter for birds. It had lived, triumphed.

Rob and I are very grateful to Mr. Stinson for planting the holly. And I think the birds and other animals that visit our yard appreciate it too. American holly is a great wildlife tree.

The berries are an important food for birds, food that helps them get through the lean times at the end of winter. Apparently the fruits are bitter, not delicious (they're actually poisonous to humans), and birds won’t generally eat them until late in the season, when they’ve been made more palatable (milder) by repeated freezing and thawing. (Or at least that's what I've read.) Here are a few of the birds that use the fruits: mockingbirds, robins, catbirds, bluebirds, brown thrashers, and blue jays. Raccoons will eat them too, I've heard.

American holly is a good tree to plant if you want to support pollinators. The tiny white spring flowers are visited by bees, moths, and butterflies in their search for nectar, and the Henry's elfin, a small brown hairstreak, lays its eggs on the leaves. (Dahoon and yaupon hollies also serve as host plants for the Henry's elfin.)

American holly is native from Massachusetts to Florida, west to Texas and Missouri. It's slow growing and long-lived. Plant it in partial shade in moist, well-drained, acidic soil. Water it during dry spells until it's established. Then just enjoy it. There's no maintenance involved. Mature trees reach heights of about 20 to 60 feet.

You'd think with all the hollies I have now (the big one and all its offspring) that I'd have my house decorated to the nines at Christmas. But no. Not so. I can never bring myself to cut even a single leaf or branch, though I love the idea of natural decorations. I guess when it comes right down to it, I'd rather see the branches on the trees than on my mantelpieces.

Rob standing by the holly showing off some carrots


  1. How lovely for Mr. Stinson to be able to see the tree standing so tall and so well-loved. Thanks for sharing the facts about all the birds who enjoy these trees. Love trees...

  2. I want an American Holly tree! Actually several years ago I was on the hunt for one and couldn't find any. . . so I ended up with a yaupon holly that hasn't done much. :-(

    Did I read correctly that you have a "pond"? Seriously Leslie, can your home be anymore perfect?!

    And the carrots look great. Reminds me of the carrot post on Cottage Life on Pilgrim's Farm. I love that blog - which I found via yours so thank you!).

    Have a wonderful week.


  3. I love your blog and your house and gardens.I really enjoy reading it. My name is Mary Nelson and I also live in Quincy.

  4. Hi Daisy, thanks! Trees are my very favorite plants. We barely have any sun left for our vegetable garden because I've planted so many trees!

  5. Hi Eli, thanks! We do have a pond, but we built it ourselves! It's about three feet deep and 20 feet long and is home to many goldfish.

    I don't know why American holly isn't more common in the nurseries; it's such a beautiful tree. Too bad you don't live closer--I could dig one out of my yard for you!

    I have yaupons too--and mine haven't done much either. I'm hoping it might just be a matter of waiting. I've seen some old ones that are very grand and full of berries.

  6. Hi Mary! Thank you so much. I'm so pleased to have a Quincy reader. I hope we can meet in person!

  7. Leslie,I would really like to meet you. I know that you and Rob walk past my house a lot. It is the white one with a white picket fence on King st that decorates for all the holidays. Please stop by sometime. Mary

  8. Thanks, Mary! I love your house, by the way. Rob and I always admire it when we're walking!

  9. Wow, the carrots look awesome! Do you have any good carrot recipes?

  10. I have a little Holly coming up by the cherry tree. I am hoping it is an American Holly like yours. The carrots look great! What are you going to make with them?-B