The genus Ilex is the sole member of the family Aquifoliaceae, but there are over 600 species comprising the genus. Ilex aquifolium, known in the UK and other places as Common holly, and in North America as English holly,  is the most widely grown holly in the genus, particularly in English gardens. It is a broadleaf evergreen tree, or shrub, native to Europe that is typically found as an understory tree in beech and oak forests, not unlike its cousin, the American holly (Ilex opaca). Common, or English holly, is an erect, pyramidal, densely-branched tree growing 30 to 50 feet tall, though it has been known to reach 80 feet. The positive form is one of its great assets but so are the leathery, glossy, wavy-margined leaves. These spiny leaves are some of the prettiest of  any tree and one of the chief reasons holly is grown since the beauty of its foliage is undiminished year-round.  In spring, fragrant but inconspicuous greenish-white flowers appear. The flowers however, give rise to this tree’s other great asset which are the berry-like red (sometimes orange or yellow) drupes which ripen in fall and persist into winter, but only on female trees as Holly is dioecious. In the English speaking world holly is closely associated with Christmas. It makes a splendid decoration, with its bright red berries set against dark glossy leaves. Interestingly, the tradition of holly decoration predates Christianity and probably began with the Druids who brought holly inside in winter to keep evil spirits away. And the Romans sent holly branches with presents during Saturnalia. Although the fruit are mildly toxic to humans the birds have no problem consuming them, making this holly a blessing to wildlife, not only for food but also habitat. Not surprisingly with so many excellent characteristics Common holly has given rise to a vast number of cultivars.

On a practical level, the prickly leaves make holly a good hedge and the dense, evergreen foliage makes it a first-rate screen or windbreak. But the leaves and fruit render it an excellent specimen.

Hollies grow best in light soil, well-drained, moist and slightly acidic. Although English holly is considered more ornamental than American holly, it is less resistant to extremes of cold and heat. It grows throughout the UK but only along the middle of the US and not the Deep South or extreme north. It also does well in temperate Australia and New Zealand. Look for it in better tree nurseries.


Common (English)  holly

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