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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):


Family (Botanic):


Planting Site:

  • Residential and parks

Tree or Plant Type:

  • Tree


  • Evergreen (foliage year-round)

Native Locale:

  • Illinois,
  • North America

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


  • Road salt

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

Seasons of Interest:

  • early winter,
  • midwinter,
  • late winter,
  • early spring,
  • mid spring,
  • late spring,
  • early summer,
  • midsummer,
  • late summer,
  • early fall,
  • mid fall,
  • late fall

Flower Color & Fragrance:

  • Inconspicuous,
  • White

Shape or Form:

  • Pyramidal

Growth Rate:

  • Slow

Transplants Well:

  • No


  • 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.

Location of Ilex opaca (American holly) at the Arboretum