American holly

Ilex opaca var. opaca
Family: Aquifoliaceae

Natural HistoryAmerican Holly
Leaves and fruit of American holly
Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida

Plants in the holly family, Aquifoliaceae, have been widely used by humans in landscaping and in holiday decorations. Because English holly (Ilex aquifolium) keeps its dark green leaves and bears bright red fruit in the wintertime, it was used for centuries as a symbol of Christmas and other winter celebrations. European immigrants to North America continued the tradition by using American holly in the same way.

The persistent leaves of American holly often have several thorny spines around the margin. These spines are quite sharp and distinctive. The bright red fruits also help distinguish American holly from other trees.

What we call "American holly," Ilex opaca var. opaca, is only one variety of the species. Another closely-related variety found here in Florida is scrub holly, Ilex opaca var. arenicola. Scrub holly differs from American holly in having smaller, more yellow-green leaves that are cupped to resemble boats.

Habitat & Range

American holly grows from Massachusetts to Florida, east to Texas, and along the Mississippi Valley to Indiana and Illinois. It is rarely found in the mountains. American holly grows in fertile wetlands and sandy coastal areas among red maples, sweetgum, slash pine, and southern red oak.

Wildlife Use

Birds such as blue jays, cedar waxwings, robins, mockingbirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, and wild turkey eat the fruits of American holly, as do mammals such as raccoon and deer. These fruits are also an important food source in the winter for songbirds. In return, the birds carry holly seeds to new areas.

Human Use

As mentioned earlier, holly is frequently chosen as a holiday ornamental due to its decorative appeal: thick, dark green, year-round foliage and red fruits. The wood is white, light, and tough but not very strong. It has been used to make cabinets but does not have a high commercial value.


Identifying Characteristics

Size/Form: American holly is a medium-sized tree that reaches heights of 30 to 50 feet. It has a pyramidal crown.
Leaves: The leaves are simple, alternately arranged, persistent, and 2 to 4 inches long by 1 to 2 inches wide. The oblong-shaped leaves usually have smooth, leathery upper surfaces and smooth, yellowish-green surfaces underneath. The leaf base is rounded or wedged and the tip is sharply pointed. The margin often has several stiff, thorny spines all the way around, although a branch will generally include a few leaves with no spines.
Twigs: Twigs are slender and coated with a rust-colored pubescence. The small, pointed buds are reddish-brown in color.
Bark: The thin, gray bark is roughened by a wart-like texture.
Flowers: The inconspicuous flowers are green or white in color and give off a pleasant fragrance.
Fruit: The fruits are red, round berry-like drupes about ΒΌ inch in diameter. The fruits appear in clusters, but only on female trees.
Similar Trees on the Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Contest List:
  • None. This is the only tree that has large stiff spines along the margins of the leaves.



Click on any thumbnail to see a photo. Use left and right arrows to navigate. Use "esc" to exit the lightbox.


Learn More