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TREES & plants

American holly

Leaves and unripe fruit of American holly.

American holly is a broad-leaved evergreen tree reaching 40 to 50 feet high, densely pyramidal in youth becoming more open and symmetrically conical with age. The dark green, elliptical leaves have several spiny teeth along the leaf margin. Plants grow best in low, acid pH soils in part shade. Avoid windy sites. Trees are either male or female and require several to get fruit production.  This species does not grow to its full potential in northern Illinois.

Botanical name: 
Ilex opaca
All Common Names: 
American holly
Family (English): 
Holly
Family (Botanic): 
Aquifoliaceae
Tree or Plant Type: 
  • Tree
Foliage: 
  • Evergreen (foliage year-round)
Native Locale: 
  • Illinois, 
  • North America
Planting Site: 
  • Residential and parks
Landscape Uses: 
  • Specimen
Size Range: 
  • Large tree (more than 40 feet)
Mature Height: 
40-50 feet
Mature Width: 
18-40 feet
Light Exposure: 
  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily), 
  • Partial sun/shade (4-6 hrs light daily)
Hardiness Zones: 
  • Zone 5 (Chicago), 
  • Zone 6, 
  • Zone 7, 
  • Zone 8, 
  • Zone 9
Soil Preference: 
  • Acid soil, 
  • Moist, well-drained soil
Acid Soils: 
  • Prefers
Alkaline Soils: 
  • Moderately Tolerant
Salt Spray: 
  • Tolerant
Soil Salt: 
  • Tolerant
Drought Conditions: 
  • Intolerant
Poor Drainage: 
  • Intolerant
Planting Considerations: 
  • Marginally hardy, 
  • May be difficult to find in nurseries
Ornamental Interest: 
  • Persistent fruit/seeds, 
  • Showy fruit
Season of Interest: 
  • Early winter, 
  • Mid winter, 
  • Late winter, 
  • Early spring, 
  • Mid spring, 
  • Late spring, 
  • Early summer, 
  • Mid summer, 
  • Late summer, 
  • Early fall, 
  • Mid fall, 
  • Late fall
Flower Color & Fragrance: 
  • Inconspicuous, 
  • White
Shape or Form: 
  • Pyramidal
Growth Rate: 
  • Slow
Transplants Well: 
  • No
Wildlife: 
  • Birds, 
  • Insect pollinators, 
  • Large mammals, 
  • Small mammals
More Information: 

Tree & Plant Care

Prefers acid soil.  Intolerant of drought and poor drainage.
Does not always reach its full potential in northern climates (considered marginally hardy in zone 5).

Disease, pests, and problems

A number of pests are possible, including leaf miner, scale, leaf spots and cankers.

Native geographic location and habitat

Native the to eastern and southeastern United States.

Bark color and texture 

Bark is smooth, gray and thin.

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture

Evergreen leaves, alternate and simple, with sharply pointed teeth. Dark green in color and 1 1/2 to 4 inches long.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size

Male and female flowers on separate plants.  Flowers are white but very small.  Fragrant.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions

Red berries on female plants only.  A male plant is needed to pollinate the female.

Ilex opaca or American holly