Your Year Around Flower and Garden Guide

Holly: Nature's Natural Holiday Decoration

"Of all the trees that are in the woods, the Holly bears the Crown."
(English Folk Carol:The Holly & The Ivy)


Holly has been a cherished Holiday decoration since ancient times when the Roman's celebrated the winter solstice by giving holly in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture and vegetation.

The English Carol, "The Holly and the Ivy" mentions every part of the holly plant. The Holly's white blossoms are likened to the purity of the Virgin Mary, the broad thorny leaves to the Crown of Thorns, and the berries compared to drops of Christ's blood. Even the bark of the holly tree is compared to the gall that flowed from Christ's pierced side.

Yet, holly, with its bright red berries is a cheerful plant. In 1620, American Holly must have been a welcome sight for sea weary Pilgrims, who landed along the Massachusetts coast just a week before Christmas. Today Holly remains a traditional and well-loved Holiday decoration in both the New World and the old.

In fact, holly is a global plant and grows everywhere on Earth with the exception of Australia and Antarctica.

Holly is one of nature's most diverse plants

Some cultivars grow as low 6-inch spreading shrubs while other types are true Holly trees that reach up to 70 feet high! The "national champion" American holly lives in the Congaree Swamp of South Carolina and is 99 feet tall, with a circumference over 8 feet and a trunk diameter of 31 inches.

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Although a few Holly varieties are deciduous, most, including those we cherish for Holiday decorating, are evergreen.

Holly berries each contain four seeds but seed germination is slow and requires from 16 months to as long as three years with another three years for you to produce your first holly flowers and holly berries. Most holly plants grow with a strong tap root and a robust lateral root system, which makes propagation from cuttings, layering, or grafting much easier to accomplish.

Grow Holly the Easy Way

The easiest way to grow healthy holly is to purchase a potted holly plant from your favorite nursery or garden center. Although most species of holly are hardy only in warmer and coastal climates, with over 400 species and 1,000 named cultivars, a few manage to survive temperate climates to zone 3.

One thing all holly plants have in common is that they are dioecious. To produce bright red holly berries, you need to pair your female (pistallate) holly plant with a male (staminate) counterpart. Many nurseries sell 5-gallon pots of paired, compatible plants. For instance, some types of English holly produce lovely, variegated foliage as well as bright berries. The Argenteo Marginata is a holly cultivar with creamy leaf edges and is truly striking when paired with the compatible (and also attractively variegated) male, Monvila.

The low light days of the winter holiday season are an ideal time for growing a young Holly plant indoors. Holly is very shade tolerant and even grows in the under story of mature forests. Although flowering and fruiting are less in shade-grown plants, leaf areas both increase and present deeper shades of green than those of plants grown in sunny locations.

Both container grown and garden grown holly plants do best in moist well-drained soils. Holly is tolerant of a wide variety of soils. Although it grows best in slightly acidic soil, in nature, Holly habitats range from those with sandy coastal soils to the dry gravelly soils further inland. Check with your extension agent or garden center to find the cultivars that are right for your area.

Outdoor grown holly is a true delight as its bright berries attract many woodland creatures such as squirrels and even deer to a post-holiday feast of leaves, bark and berries. Small birds such as the cedar waxwing, goldfinch, and larger birds including mourning doves, bobwhites, and wild turkeys are just a few of the over 18 species of birds that have been observed feasting on nature's natural holiday decoration, the holly tree.

Read more about Holly at these sites:

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Consider giving a plant as a holiday gift! Check Plants A to Z for your favorites and include a care sheet from our PDF Library!