With just a few oak leaves barely hanging onto trees, the forest near my house looks barren. Most trees have shed their leaves. The golden hues of autumn have been replaced with grays and browns.
But amidst this monochromatic background, a tree stands out with glorious color. Ignored most of the year, the American holly (Ilex opaca) now takes center stage with bright green leaves and ripe red berries.
Like all evergreens, the American holly does not lose its leaves at the end of the growing season. The leaves of the holly are thick and leathery, which prevents the loss of water that causes other trees to shed their leaves. The leaves have large, remotely spined teeth, and are arranged alternately. They are 2–4 inches long, satin green and smooth above, and yellowish-green below.
The American holly is only one of several hundred holly species found throughout the world. It is even the state tree of Delaware.
The American holly is scattered from Massachusetts south along the coast to Florida. In the South, it ranges west to eastern Texas and southeastern Missouri.
The only temperate or tropical regions naturally lacking any holly species are western North America and Australia.
People have long been fascinated with these evergreens. Druids viewed holly as a tree never abandoned by the sun they worshipped. Romans presented holly boughs with gifts to esteemed friends. And, of course, many cultures “deck the halls” with holly, using them as seasonal decorations.
People aren’t the only ones who benefit from these evergreens. Hollies provide excellent shelter for many types of birds.
Birds are also the principal consumers of the fruit. Northern flickers, gray catbirds, cedar waxwings, mourning doves, ruffed grouse, northern bobwhites, cardinals, blue jays, northern mockingbirds, white-throated sparrows, eastern towhees and wild turkeys all eat the distinctive red berries.
Birds are important in dispersing holly seeds. Large winter-migrating flocks of small birds such as the cedar waxwings and American goldfinches are perhaps the most important in dispersing seeds.
Many other animals also feed on American holly, including white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, chipmunks, meadow voles, red foxes, raccoons, cottontail rabbits, white-footed mice and box turtles.
Hollies are dioecious, which means that a single tree will have either male or female flower parts. Both male and female flowers are small and creamy white. They appear in late spring or early summer, and are pollinated by bees, wasps, ants and moths. Only the female trees bear fruit.
Usually looking more like a large shrub or small tree, the American holly is a slow grower. They can, however, reach up to 60 feet in height. The fruit, known as drupes, ripen from September through December and stay on the tree throughout the winter.
The American holly grows best on well-drained, sandy soils, but will tolerate those that are somewhat poorly drained.
It also tolerates shade as an understory tree and thrives in full sun.
This native holly makes a wonderful landscaping tree when planted singly and given sufficient space to grow. It is important to plant both male– and female-flowering hollies if berry production is desired. Many homeowners choose to group them as hedges to screen their yards from activity and noise or to serve as a background planting.
Hollies are not only beautiful to look at but are great for the soul. We even chase away dreary winter doldrums by decorating our homes with sprigs of holly.
Meanwhile, hollies attract wildlife, especially in the winter as birds flit among the branches for cover and food.
Although birds and other wildlife benefit from holly, keep cats and dogs from eating its leaves and berries, which can cause severe gastrointestinal symptoms.
The wood of American holly is one of the whitest woods known, with white sapwood and ivory-white heartwood.
The wood is used for specialty items such as fancy inlays, wood engravings, scroll work, measuring scales and rules for scientific instruments.