With just a few brown oak leaves hanging onto trees, the landscape around my house looks barren. All of the deciduous trees have shed almost all of their leaves.
It’s not the cold that caused them their leaves to drop, but the threat of desiccation. When the ground freezes, a tree is unable draw more water through its roots.
Because of the low humidity of the air, a tree would dry out if it retained its unprotected leaves. Thus, deciduous plants shed their leaves annually to conserve water.
So the golden hues of autumn are gone, replaced with grays and browns. But amidst the monochromatic background, a tree stands out in all of its glorious color.
In the woods near my house, American hollies, ignored most of the year, now take center stage with their bright green leaves and ripe red berries—food for my eyes so hungry for color.
The American holly is a native evergreen, a term for plants that do not lose their leaves at the end of the growing season.
The leaves of the holly, like other evergreens, are covered with a thick, often waxy, layer that prevents the loss of water.
I‘m not the only one who appreciates hollies this time of year.
The holly fruit is consumed by many bird species, including the common flicker, gray catbird, cedar waxwing, mourning dove, ruffed grouse, northern bobwhite, cardinal, blue jay, mockingbird, white-throated sparrow, rufous-sided towhee and wild turkey.
Other animals that eat American holly include deer, squirrels, chipmunks, meadow voles, red foxes, raccoons, cottontails, white-footed mice and box turtles.
The American holly also provides excellent shelter for many animals and is a good nest site for a variety songbird species, especially bluebirds and thrashers.
People, too, have always been fascinated with holly trees. Romans presented holly boughs with gifts to esteemed friends. Druids viewed holly as a tree never abandoned by the sun they worshiped.
When the Pilgrims landed In North America, the prickly leaves and red berries of American holly (Ilex opaca) reminded them of the English holly (Ilex aquifolium), a symbol of Christmas for centuries in England and Europe. Since then, the American holly has been valued for Christmas decorations and ornamental plantings.
In fact, the indiscriminate harvesting of foliage with berries for Christmas decorating poses the greatest threat to holly trees. This was especially true in the early 20th century, when holly branches became such a popular indoor Christmas decoration that vandals began stealing them from private landscapes. To preserve the landscape in Maryland and Delaware, where the native tree is prolific, laws were passed prohibiting the sale of fresh American holly.
Fire is another deadly enemy of this tree.
American holly is one of 300 species of holly, which are found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. In the United States, holly is scattered along the East Coast from the maritime forests of Massachusetts to Delaware. It grows inland into several Pennsylvania counties and abundantly southward throughout the Coastal Plain, Piedmont Plateau and Appalachian Province.
In the wild, the holly is often an understory tree—growing in forests under larger trees.
Stiff and prickly evergreen American holly leaves are a glossy medium green to olive green on the surface and lighter green on the underside. Their broadly indented margins show the distinctive prickly spines. The leaves, which are arranged alternately along the holly stems, will remain attached for three years before being shed in the spring.
Holly bark is light gray and smooth; twigs are gray-white.
Hollies are dioecious. This means that both male and female plants are necessary to produce fruit.
Flowering occurs in the tree’s fourth or fifth year. American holly flowers are creamy-white and small, with four tiny petals. Male flowers grow in small clusters where the leaves join the stems; female flowers have bulb-like structures in the center, with little stalks rising from them.
Flowering begins in April in the southern range of American holly, and in June in its northern limits.
Pollination occurs with the help of bees, who use its nectar to make honey; wasps; ants; yellow jackets; and night-flying moths.
The bright red fruit, commonly called a berry, is technically a four-seeded drupe, a term used to describe a fleshy fruit surrounding a central seed or seeds. Drupes, which grow from September to November, start out green and berrylike before turning bright red.
They will stay on the tree throughout the winter unless they are consumed by birds or other wildlife. In turn, these animals—mostly small birds and mammals—disperse the seeds. Large, migrating flocks of small birds such as cedar waxwings and American goldfinches are perhaps the most important species for dispersing holly seeds.
According to the 2004–05 National Register of Big Trees, the National Champion American holly is located in Cumberland, VA. It has a circumference of 139 inches, is 68 feet high, and has a spread of 48 feet with 219 total points. This database can be accessed on the internet at www.americanforests.org/resources/bigtrees.
The demand for its boughs for decorating and wood for lumber and novelty products has reduced the number of large trees, though, and the average American holly is a small to medium tree about 40–50 feet tall.
American holly’s wood—one of the whitest woods known with white sapwood and ivory heartwood—is close-grained and moderately heavy, but not strong.
Because it sands and turns easily, as well as polishes to a fine luster, holly wood is used for fancy cabinet inlays, small pieces of furniture, brush backs, handles, novelties, engravings, scrollwork, woodcuts and carvings, as well as measuring scales and rules for scientific instruments. When dyed black to resemble ebony, it is used for piano keys, violin pegs and fingerboards.
The attractiveness of its foliage, though, is the American holly’s principal value, whether as a forest tree, planted ornamental or Christmas decoration.
They are excellent as specimen trees when planted singly and given sufficient space to grow.
Many homeowners also choose to group them as hedges to screen their yards from neighbors or traffic noise or to serve as background plantings.
A well-drained loamy soil that is fairly light, sandy and acidic to neutral (pH 5.0 to 7.0) is ideal. Soils having higher pH (alkaline) cause poor growth and induce chlorosis (loss of green leaf color).
To ensure fruit, plant male and female hollies within 300 feet of each other.
While the American holly grows best in full sun, it will tolerate some shade. A tree located in full shade, though, is likely to be less compact and produce fewer berries.