Although you have probably seen holly leaves and berries used as Christmas decorations, the tree from which they come may be unfamiliar to you. American holly grows in the southeastern United States and along the Atlantic Coast as far north as Massachusetts. The slow-growing American holly trees are either male or female, with only the female trees capable of bearing the red fruit that is one of the plant's trademarks.
The typically American holly grows to be as tall as 40 to 50 feet in the warmer parts of its range, but in northern states, as a landscaping species, the tree struggles to reach 30 feet high. The trunk diameter can be 2 feet and the leaves grow to be 2 to 4 inches long. The red berries the female trees produce are as wide as three-eighths of an inch.
The evergreen holly leaves grow alternately on the branches. The leaves possess a leathery texture and are a glossy green on top, with a yellowish-green shade on the underside. The leaves are oval and have intermittent spines protruding from the edges. The only major pests that affect holly leaves are leaf miners, but the Floridata website says these bugs typically have no adverse effect on the tree.
The best place to plant or transplant an American holly is a spot on your property that has protection from the wind and receives full or partial sunlight during the day. Holly trees do well in well-draining spots that have acidic soil. In the wild, this tree grows in the mixed hardwood forests and in moist flood plains. There must be a male holly tree close by to pollinate the females if the berries are to develop.
As many as 1,000 different holly tree hybrids exist, with many bred to offer different features. The canary cultivar has yellow berries, while the Croonenburg has male and female flowers on the same tree, eliminating the need for multiple trees of opposite sexes. Clarendon is a hybrid that grows just 8 feet high and has red-orange berries. The Old Heavyberry hybrid has very dark green foliage, large berries and withstands cold climates exceptionally well.
The American holly features whitish wood that the Virginia Department of Forestry describes as bone-colored. Artisans can make such items as rulers, cabinets, veneers and handles from holly wood. The berries are a favorite of birds and small animals, and the boughs are part of traditional Christmases across much of the nation. As a landscaping tree, American holly stands out as a specimen plant to garner attention or as a hedge or screen planting.