All about the boughs of holly

Part 1 of 2

The holly family, botanically known as Aquifiliaceae, is a monotypic species. This means that all of the hollies are part of one species — Ilex. There are about 400 species of Ilex throughout the world. Of those 400 species, 17 hollies are native to the United States. Three of the Ilex species are native to Missouri.

Depending upon the location, there is a holly that will grow well. There’s the evergreen holly known as “inkberry.” There’s American holly, English holly, Japanese holly and Chinese holly. Holly species of various types are commonly referred to “yaupon,” “possum haw” and “winterberry.”

Regardless of the name or species of holly, all holly is dioecious which means that the flowers born on holly plants are unisexual on one plant. A holly tree or shrub will grow alone, but it will not bear fruit unless a male or female holly of the opposite sex is nearby.

Male and female hollies will bloom in the spring. The male holly produces a greater show if flowers, but it female holly plants are the heavy fruit producers in the holly family. A ratio of one male holly for every five or six female hollies is suggested for gardeners that prefer abundant holly fruit production.

Typically, the male and female holly plants should be of the same species for maximum pollination and fruiting. Hollies can interbreed if the flowering times overlap.

Although the fruit of the holly is typically called a berry, the fruits are actually botanically known as “drupes.” Berries are have an exocarp – a skinlike covering – surrounding a juicy pulp known as a mesocarp that contains naked seeds. In the drupes found on hollies, the seed is actually protected by a hard, bony structure known as an endocarp.

Holly drupes are very valuable to birds. Many wild birds will eat holly fruit after it has been exposed to a hard frost. Holly berries are toxic to humans, though, and will cause an upset stomach.

The word holly is actually the Old English word for “holy” which may refer to the plants common use at Christmas time. Used at Christmas for decorations, holly branches are typically covered with red berries during the holiday season. Wild populations of holly should not be used for decoration; they can easily be wiped out by overuse.

In my next column, I will discuss American holly and cultivars in more detail.

Questions or comments related to gardening? Contact Joleen at

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply