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American Holly Ilex opaca


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American Holly
© Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

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Alternate name: Christmas Holly

Family: Aquifoliaceae, Holly view all from this family

Description Medium-sized broadleaved pyramidal evergreen. Shorter, multi-trunked form grows in lower-light conditions. Branches stout, stiff. Bark light-gray. Leaves dark-green, non-glossy, spine-tipped. New growth pushes off the old leaves in spring. Bark light gray, roughened by small warty lumps. Branchlets stout, green; covered with rusty down, later smooth and brown. Winter buds brown, short, obtuse or acute. Flowers greenish white, small, borne from the axils of young leaves or scattered along the base of young branches. Calyx small, four-lobed, imbricate in the bud, acute, margins ciliate, persistent. Corolla white, with four petal-like lobes united at the base, obtuse, spreading, hypogynous, imbricate in bud. Flower stem hairy with a minute bract at base. Dioecious, with separate male and female plants; only female plants produce red berries. One male can pollenize several females. Male flowers have four stamens, inserted on the base of the corolla, alternate with its lobes; filaments awl-shaped, exserted in the sterile, much shorter in the sterile flower; anthers attached at the back, oblong, introrse, two-celled, cells opening longitudinally. Pistil on female flowers has a superior ovary, four-celled, rudimentary in staminate flowers; style wanting, stigma sessile, four-lobed; ovules one or two in each cell. Fruit a small red drupe containing four seeds; often persistent into winter.

Dimensions Height: 12-21 m. (40-70 ft.)
Diameter: 0.3-0.6 m. (1-2 ft.).

Warning Berries can be toxic to humans, especially children, if ingested. Sensitivity to a toxin varies with a personís age, weight, physical condition, and individual susceptibility. Children are most vulnerable because of their curiosity and small size. Toxicity can vary in a plant according to season, the plantís different parts, and its stage of growth; and plants can absorb toxic substances, such as herbicides, pesticides, and pollutants from the water, air, and soil.

Habitat Fields, Scrub, shrub & brushlands.

Range Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Florida, Texas, Great Lakes, New England, Plains.

Discussion Typically grows as an understory tree in forests. Wood very pale, tough, close-grained, takes a good polish; used for whip-handles, engraving blocks, and cabinet work. Can also be dyed and used as a substitute for ebony.

Comments You must have both a male and female plant to have berries. The male must be the same species as the female and bloom at the same time. Because hollies are such popular landscape plants, it may be worth the risk to plant a female and hope there is a male nearby. The fruits of this species are poisonous. This is a very slow-growing tree.

Exposure Preference Shade to sun.

Flower March - June

Native Distribution Virginia to n. Florida, w. to s.e. Missouri & e. Texas; also coastal areas from Massachusetts to Maryland

Site Preference Moist or dry, sandy woods; river banks

Soil Preference Moist, well-drained sandy soils.

Wildlife Value Berries attract many bird and small mammal species.