American Holly Tree Guide: How To ID Holly Leaves, Berries, Growing Holly

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Gardening | March 28, 2024

Woman examines american holly tree and wonders how to grow american holly hedges, how to identify american holly leaves, berries, american holly growing zones, growth rate.

The American Holly tree is one of the many types of evergreen trees. It is commonly found on the East Coast, and most common in the Chesapeake Bay area.

But, it can also be found as far north as Maine and as far southwest as Louisiana. The American Holly has multiple cultivars and is a common plant for landscapes because of its dark green leaves, distinctive thick bark, and red berries.1

Although there are many types of holly tree shrubs, the American species is unique.

In this complete guide, you can learn all about American Holly tree facts, including their habitat, ways you can properly care for them, and how to grow them for your unique landscape.

Best Methods for How To Identify American Holly Tree

The American Holly has various distinctions that make it stand out from other evergreen trees.

You can easily identify an American Holly by its leaves, berries, and flowers.

Graphic with text and images that shows how to identify american holly tree through its bark, flowers, leaves, and fruits.

(Bark Image: Chhe13, Flowers Image: Helen Lowe Metzman12, and Leaves Image: Congaree National Park11)

In general, it has dark green spiky leaves, red berries, and small flowers. The bark of the American Holly is smooth and its branches are stiff.

How To Identify American Holly Berries

The American Holly has berries that grow during the spring months and become ripe during the fall and winter months. They begin as green and then eventually become red.

Other than identifying the red berry, tree identification is also crucial to ensure any red berry you consume does not belong to the American Holly. The American Holly is one of many dangerous trees to humans because the berries are poisonous.2

How To Identify American Holly Leaves

The leaves of the American Holly are broad and smooth. They are simple and have large spined teeth around their edges.

The leaves are 2 – 4 inches long, have a leathery surface on the top, and the tip has a sharp point.3 You can tell the holly leaf by its dark green color.

How To Identify the American Holly Flower

The flower of the American Holly is a greenish-white color and blooms in the spring to the summer season, typically from May to June. For both the male and females, the flowers have four stamens and four petals.

The flower of the male American Holly will have anthers tipped with pollen while the female flower has a single ovary or lump in its center. Male flowers come in clusters or cymes of 3 to 9 individual flowers while the female flower is solitary.

The female flower is typically a dull white color while the male flower is a greenish white. Tree pollination occurs thanks to bees and butterflies, which are attracted to the American Holly flowers.4

American Holly

(Ilex opaca)

American Holly Tree in an oval frame on green background.
  • Conservative Status: G5 (Stable)
  • Characteristics: The American Holly is characterized as an evergreen tree with spine-tipped leaves and thick, dense branches. The female holly bears red berries that are ripe in the fall to winter months and can reach up to 60 feet tall.
  • Family: Holly Family (Aquifoliaceae)
  • Genus: Ilex
  • Leaf: Dark green in color with a smooth texture and spiky edges. Alternate leaf arrangement.
  • Bark: Light gray color and smooth
  • Seed: Present in the drupe in quantities of 4.
  • Blossoms: Greenish white in color
  • Fruit: Drupes (though commonly called berries)
  • Native Habitat: Wooded areas with low-light
  • Height: On average 15 - 25 feet tall, but can reach up to 60 feet.
  • Canopy: Understory trees
  • Type: Dioecious
  • Native Growing Zone: Eastern to central U.S. (5-9 Hardiness Zones)

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Ranking

Least Concern


Image Credit: Kehl Mack (kehlmack)17

Tips on Growing an American Holly Tree From a Seed

The American Holly takes less time to grow than most other trees. How long does it take for a tree to grow, normally?

On average 20 – 30 years is about how long it takes to grow. American Holly Tree, on the other hand, can take 5 – 10 years to grow to maturity.

Before placing the seed in the soil, make sure to rinse it off in cold water. Ensure you plant the American Holly seed a half inch deep into the soil and cover up the bed with tar paper or a sheet of plastic.

Cut a hole in the surface, which when you grow a tree will help guide its growth in the beginning.

Best Season To Plant the American Holly Tree

The American Holly will take up to two years to germinate, requiring two cold winters before it can bud. Typically you will begin the tree potted in a nursery and then transfer your seeding to the ground in the spring or fall.

However, the best time to plant a seed is before November.

The Best Growing Conditions for American Holly Tree

The American Holly does well in a wide range of environments but benefits most from acidic and moist soil that drains well.5

Alkaline soil can lead to the leaves turning yellow and the ideal pH for the American Holly is 3.5 – 6.0.

Photo of the leaves of american holly tree.

(Image: Homer Edward Price14)

The watering needs for American Holly Tree growth is high as it requires moist soil, and the entire root system should be moist. However, the American Holly is also resilient during dry periods as well as wet periods.

This means that the American Holly is one of many drought-tolerant trees. Typically, watering a tree isn’t necessary if you plant it in the right environment.

A common practice to keep the soil moist is to place mulch around trees; this works especially for the American Holly. To properly mulch the ground around an American Holly, place about 3” of mulch around the area without allowing it to touch the trunk.

What Is the Most Common American Holly Tree Growing Zone?

The best growing zones for American Holly Tree (Where to grow) are Zones 5 to 9.6 These zones provide the best conditions for the American Holly and range from -20ºF to 30ºF for the extreme minimum low temperature.

Tips on Growing an American Holly Tree From a Cutting

It’s possible to grow an American Holly from a cutting. First take a cutting that is below the leaf node, about a quarter of an inch.

Place the tip in water before placing it into potting soil either outside or in a greenhouse. Here are some planting tips for American Holly tree cuttings.

Conditions To Guarantee the Best American Holly Tree Growth Rate

Moist and acidic soil that is well-drained is best for the American Holly. The ideal pH for the soil is 3.6 – 6.0, but it usually does well in soil with pH <6.3.

Since it is an understory tree, it does well in the shade and can thrive in areas with temperatures reaching low extremes of -20ºF (-29ºC). The American Holly is a resilient tree that does well in dry or moist climates and also doesn’t require much sun.

So, how much sunlight does American Holly Tree need each day to grow? A minimum of four hours a day is necessary for the American Holly.

This makes it a great landscape tree if you are living in areas with little sunlight during winter days. For optimal growth and health, how far apart to plant American Holly Tree from other plants and trees is an important factor.

The optimal distance is between 3 and 6 feet of space between plants, and having 1 male holly to every 3 females in a 200’ foot area.7

The Risks of Growing an American Holly Tree From a Seedling

Starting an American Holly from a seedling makes it susceptible to many risks.

Graphic with text and images of American holly Tree pests and diseases.

(Tar Spot Image: Richard Avery15 and Phytophthora Root Rot Image: Jerzy Opioła16)

Starting small makes it weak and vulnerable to disease, while a full and vibrant holly tree makes it enticing to pests.

Best Methods for How To Stop American Holly Tree Disease Types

The American Holly is at risk for diseases and fungal infections such as Black Root Rot, Phytophthora Root Rot, Tar Spot, and Nematodes.8 For the right American Holly Tree disease prevention, you have to understand the root of the problem.

Black Root Rot

This is a fungus that affects the root system, but the American Holly has a moderate resistance to this fungus. In many cases, this rot is caused by soil that is not properly drained.

Using a raised bed helps to avoid these issues, but if the issue persists the infected plant will have to be removed as the fungus can reside in the soil for years.

Tar Spot

The result of a fungus called Macroderma curtisii, tar spot results in yellow spots that appear on leaves, which untreated will turn brown and then black. This appears not only on leaves but also on the berries of the American Holly.

Pruning the plant as well as removing leaves helps to cure this issue.

Phytophthora Root Rot

Another mold caused by poorly drained soil, Phytophthora Root Rot is very similar to Black Root Rot and will cause slow growth and will eventually disintegrate the roots of the plant. Fungicides are an effective method for prevention, but ensuring proper drainage is crucial with techniques such as a raised bed.


These organic creatures live in the soil and cannot be seen with the naked eye. They slowly harm the plant by feeding directly from the leaves and branches.

The best preventive methods are to remove any infected material, and replace the soil, while there are no chemical interventions at the moment.

Common American Holly Loving Pests

The most common pests of the American Holly are Leafminers, Southern Red Mite, and Pit Scale.9 Here are more specifics surrounding these pests as well as the best natural pest control for American Holly Tree treatment.


These are black and gray fly larvae which are situated within the leaves of the American Holly and create visible trails from feeding. They cause a mostly aesthetic issue, but the application of imidacloprid or dinotefuran to the soil, spinosad or acephate to the affected areas, or picking off the infested leaves can help prevent their spread.

Southern Red Mite

These mites will suck the nutrients from the underside of leaves, and create webbing since they are closely related to spiders. They will be visible under leaves and can be prevented by introducing ladybird beetles or you can spray a stream of water on the leaves every other day.

Pit Scale

Found on the underside of American holly leaves, these pests feed on the sap of the plant and can cause yellowing of leaves and can lead to plant death. They can be removed with light infestations, but larger infestations will require a spraying of horticultural oil, possibly more than once.

Types of Holly Tree Other Than the American Holly

The American Holly has more than 1000 cultivars; the five most popular include Satyr Hill, Jersey Princess, and Morgan Gold for the female varieties and the Jersey Knight as a male variety. Many other popular holly types of trees and bushes include the English Holly (Ilex aquifolium), Chinese Holly (Ilex cornuta), and Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata).

The Ilex genus is very extensive with about 480 species that include not only trees but also bushes and climbing lianas. One popular holly is the Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis) whose leaves are generally used for medicinal purposes.

The berries of the Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria) were used in a ceremonial drink by the Native Americans as well.

The American Holly tree is one of the most popular holly trees for landscaping in North America.

Frequently Asked Questions About the American Holly Tree

What Are the Best Companion Plants For Growing American Holly Tree?

There are many plants that do well in acidic soils and can benefit the American Holly. Popular companion plants to grow with the American Holly include shrubs like Azaleas and Clematis; perennials such as Coral Bells; and annuals such as Dianthus and Torenia.10

Where Can You Get American Holly Seeds?

You can get American Holly seeds from the plant itself, by picking American Holly berries between December and February and picking out the seeds. You can also buy American Holly Tree seeds from most gardening and landscape stores.

Are American Holly Hedges Hard To Maintain?

As a drought resistant plant that can survive in zones 5 to 9 the American Holly is a low maintenance plant. The hedges make for a perfect addition to a landscape since they are easy to care for and can resist extreme temperatures, additionally, regular trimming and pruning also make it one of many great privacy trees.

Is the American Holly Tree Also Known as the American Holly Bush?

The American Holly grows larger than a bush, although there are plants of the Ilex genus that are bushes. Many holly bushes share the same characteristics as the American Holly, including red berries, spiny evergreen leaves, and white flowers.

What Does Ilex Opaca Mean?

The Ilex in Ilex Opaca means “holly” while the term opaca refers to the dullness and darkness of the leaves.5 Opaca translates to opaque, and refers specifically to the leaves.

Read More About American Holly Tree


1Chesapeake Bay Program. (2023). American Holly. Chesapeake Bay Program. Retrieved December 13, 2023, from <>

2Lady Bird Johnson Wilderflower Center. (2023). Ilex opaca. Lady Bird Johnson Wilderflower Center. Retrieved December 13, 2023, from <>

3Peterson, J. S. (2006, September 28). AMERICAN HOLLY. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved December 13, 2023, from <>

4Wikipedia. (2023). Ilex opaca. Wikipedia. Retrieved December 13, 2023, from <>

5NC Cooperative Extension. (2023). Ilex opaca. NC State Extension. Retrieved December 13, 2023, from <>

6Baeulieu, D. (2021, July 21). How to Grow American Holly. The Spruce. Retrieved December 13, 2023, from <>

7Grow Nativ Missouri Prairie Foundation. (2023). American Holly. Grow Native. Retrieved December 13, 2023, from <>

8University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. (2023, November 29). AMERICAN HOLLY. University of Kentucky. Retrieved December 13, 2023, from <>

9Kluepfel, M., Scott, J. M., Blake, J. H., & Gorsuch, C. S. (2021, March 4). HOLLY DISEASES & INSECT PESTS. Home & Garden Information Center. Retrieved December 13, 2023, from <>

10Plant Addicts. (2023). Holly Companion Plants. Plant Addicts. Retrieved December 13, 2023, from <>

11American Holly Photo by Congaree National Park / CC BY 2.0 DEED | Attribution 2.0 Generic. Cropped and added text, shape, images, and background color elements. Flickr. Retrieved December 12, 2023, from <>

12American Holly Photo by Helen Lowe Metzman / PDM 1.0 DEED | Public Domain Mark 1.0 Universal. Cropped and added text, shape, images, and background color elements. Flickr. Retrieved December 12, 2023, from <>

13IlexOpacaBark Photo by Chhe / Public Domain. Cropped and added text, shape, images, and background color elements. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved December 12, 2023, from <>

14American-Holly Photo by Homer Edward Price / CC BY 2.0 DEED | Attribution 2.0 Generic. Cropped and Resized. Flickr. Retrieved December 12, 2023, from <>

15Tar Spot Photo by Richard Avery / CC0 1.0 DEED | CC0 1.0 Universal. Cropped and added text, shape, images, and background color elements. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved December 11, 2023, from <>

16Root Rot Photo by Jerzy Opioła / CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED | Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International. Cropped and added text, shape, images, and background color elements. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved December 11, 2023, from <>

17Photo by Kehl Mack (kehlmack). Cropped and added text, shape, and background color elements. Pixabay. Retrieved from <>