How to Prune Ilex


A staple for Christmas decorating, holly (Ilex spp.) is a broad-leafed evergreen shrub or tree, although some varieties are semi-deciduous. Holly is best pruned in late winter or early spring, but will not suffer if branches are pruned off for the holidays. As with all evergreens, holly should be lightly pruned. It is also important not to make the pruning cut back to old wood--evergreens do not re-grow from wood where no live greenery is growing. Prune holly at the nodes--the slight bump on the branches from which new branches form and grow. Wood left above the node when pruning will eventually die, and during the process can invite pests and diseases to take up residence in the plant.

Step 1

Remove all dead, diseased and broken branches from all varieties of holly, as well as branches that are growing across one or more other branches, especially if they are growing toward the center of the bush.

Step 2

Prune American holly lightly, just enough to give it a more pleasing natural shape, but removing odd branches that are growing outside of the overall silhouette of the holly bush or tree. Only prune American holly to maintain the natural shape of the tree or bush.

Step 3

Prune Japanese or Chinese holly more severely than American holly, but still more lightly than most deciduous shrubs. Because they are more “shrubby” than American holly, thin them first by removing whole branches down to the base of the shrub. Then, remove any branches that are obviously growing outside of the natural shape of the holly bush. As with American holly, prune Japanese or Chinese holly not to change the shape of the plant, but to maintain its natural shape.

Tips and Warnings

  • Do not give your holly a “haircut” pruning by cutting back each branch a few inches. If pruned this way, new growth will only occur at the top of the bush, giving it an overall unbalanced appearance in the landscape.

Things You'll Need

  • Pruning shears
  • Hand pruning saw, if necessary


  • University of Rhode Island: Pruning Evergreens
  • North Carolina State University Extension: Pruning Trees & Shrubs
  • Purdue University Extension: Pruning Ornamental Trees and Shrubs
Keywords: prune ilex trees, prune holly trees, pruning holly bushes

About this Author

Sharon Sweeny has a college degree in general studies and worked as an administrative and legal assistant for 20 years before becoming a freelance writer in 2008. She specializes in writing about home improvement, self-sufficient lifestyles and gardening.