Ever looked closely at the beautiful decorations that are found almost everywhere during the festive Christmas season? Along with garlands and decorative accessories, one of the most popular and commonly used ornamental items is the stunning holly trees and shrubs.
Hollies are truly iconic plants that are often associated with symbols of hope and rebirth. Their symbolism is one of the main reasons why they are used as such a major part of Christmas décor. Perhaps, if you have ever properly listened to the numerous Christmas carols that people sings throughout this holiday season, you would have noticed that one of them is called “The Holly and the Ivy”.
Table of Contents
A Fascinating History of the Holly Tree
Way before holly became a standard Christmas tree; it was believed to be an extremely sacred plant by the Druids. The main reason behind the belief was that unlike many other plant and tree species, holly remained exceptionally strong and green. What is even more surprising is that it produced its bright red fruit and colorful flowers even in the harshest of weather conditions.
All these unique and fascinating qualities of the holly tree eventually led the Druids to believe that the tree consisted of some magical and spiritual powers. Ultimately, they began to associate the tree with fertility and eternal life. They also had another strong belief that cutting down a holly tree would bring them bad luck.
So, the Druids began to hang hollies in their homes as a way to protect themselves from evil and also bring in good luck and good times.
Even in today’s time, the holly tree is considered to be sacred and Christians strongly believe that the tree is symbolic of Jesus Christ. The red berries are taken to be the blood that Jesus once shed on the day he was crucified.
Other than the holy sentiments attached to the holly tree, the traditional holly (Ilex aquifolium) has always been admired for its bright red berries, and lush green foliage. Several birds and animals also enjoy these plants and are attracted to their gorgeous colors.
The wood of the holly tree is tight-grained and extremely robust which it holds a great value since historic times in terms of its uses for furniture making.
Holly- A Medical Wonder
The incredible holly tree has also been found to contain numerous medical benefits and previously, the leaves of this tree was used to cure smallpox and catarrh. People also used to extract the juice out of fresh holly leaves as a treatment for extreme jaundice.
Many people from back in the days also considered holly to be a substitute for tea. They used to make the tea from dried leaves and shoots from a variety of different holly species that resulted in quite a unique blend of delicious tea.
Different Varieties of Holly Bushes and Trees
There are quite a few different holly varieties that you will find in most households, especially during the colorful Christmas season. These are some of the most common and popular varieties of the holly tree, each with their unique characteristics, features and uses.
Also called by their scientific name “ilex opaca,” American Holly is native to south central and eastern United States and further west to southeastern Missouri and eastern Texas. It is often used in place of English holly, especially in Christmas decorations.
This variety of holly is an evergreen growing tree that attains an average height of 33-36 feet. Its trunk diameter typically reaches 20 inches and in rare cases, it can even go up to 47 inches. It produces stiff yellow green leaves that are shiny o the top and a dull matte towards the bottom. The flowers of this tree are small and they sport a greenish white color.
American holly is largely cultivated to be used as a broadleaf ornamental plant by most plant nurseries. It is popularly used during the Christmas season because it is believed to be truly connected to the merriment and celebrations associated with Christmas.
These evergreen hollies are native to Puerto Rico, Caribbean on the Bahamas, Cuba, southeastern coast of North America and Virginia to Southeast Texas. They are scientifically known as “ilex cassine” and are naturally found in swampy areas.
The leaves of the Dahoon holly are evergreen and sport a glossy, dark green color with a few spines towards of the apex of the leaf. They grow almost 6-15 cm long and 2-4 cm wide. They are commonly grown as ornamental plants given the bright red berries they produce that look stunning against the dark green leaves.
The red berries are often used in Christmas decorations along with the evergreen foliage that looks quite ethereal.
Coming from the Hawaiian Islands, Hawaiian Holly is typically found in wet forests and mixed mesic areas. These common shrubs grow to an average height of 30 to 40 feet and prefer full sun to partial shade for successful growth.
The lifespan of the Hawaiian holly extends up to more than 5 years and are considered to be one of those long-lived trees. Its trees are blunt-tipped that grow up to 2-6 inches and often sport a beautiful dark green color. The upper side of these dark green leaves is glossy while the underside gives off a paler green shade that is not so glossy.
The flowers produced by this plant are often greenish white in color and they are usually formed in clusters of white with prominent green centers.
This evergreen holly bush is the most popular of all that is used in Christmas decorations, which is one of the reasons why it is also called the ‘Christmas holly.’ This is primarily due to the unique shape of the leaves that is often associated with this festive season.
English Holly is a tall, evergreen tree with stunning foliage that is glossy and leathery. The flowers of this tree are heavily fragrant that bloom in the spring season and adopt a variety of shades like yellow, red and orange.
The tree itself reaches an average height of 15-50 feet while the dark green leaves attain a length of 1-3 inches. They are commonly native to the British Isles, and southern and central Europe. English holly is often crossed with Tsuru holly in order to produce the blue hollies or Meserve hollies (Ilex x meserveae).
This holly variety is also called deciduous holly and is greatly known for its ability to handle the cold weather better than its other species. Finetooth holly is commonly found in China and Japan and grows to an average height of 6 feet to 15 feet tall.
This variety is often confused with the winterberry, but there are two main distinguishing traits between them. Firstly, the berries produced by Finetooth holly are smaller and secondly, it is a semi-evergreen tree which means that it doesn’t shed all its leaves during the winter months.
The berries of this tree are a stunning bright and glossy red that adds great beauty to the entire winter landscape; however, these species are not used as commonly as the rest for Christmas holiday decorations.
Also known by its other common name ‘horned holly’ and scientific name Ilex cornuta, Chinese holly is an evergreen shrub that is native to Korea and China. It is a round type of shrub with glossy dark green leaves that are often spiny, and bright red berries that offer a great contrast against the lush green foliage.
Chinese holly grows to an average height of 15 feet and prefers growing in part shade or full sun, along with well-drained and moisture-laden soil. The leaves of this tree are quite rectangular in shape with three lobes sticking up that have spines on them. These spines are quite similar to horns in appearance which is what gave it the name ‘horned holly’.
These trees produce small white-green colored flowers that appear on the plant sometime during late March or early April. Like many other holly varieties, Chinese holly is a broadleaf evergreen which means that it doesn’t have a specific color in the fall.
This species of holly is also called Michigan holly, Canada holly, fever bush, and black alder. Compared to other hollies, the Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is not an evergreen variety. As soon as the first frost of the winter season hits them, their purplish green foliage turns all black.
This holly variety is native to some parts of Canada as wells as to the eastern and central United States. It is often found growing in swamps or in the edges of the woods.
Common winterberry is described as a deciduous multi-stemmed shrub that is upright and spreading that grows to an average height of 6-10 inches but can grow even taller than that. Its bark is generally smooth with some lenticels and often sports a dark gray to brown color.
These trees are commonly used in native plantings, as shrub borders, mass planting, and for fruit displays during the fall and winter season.
Also known as sand holly, Carolina holly (Ilex ambigua) is native to south central and southeastern United States. This species of the holly family can also be found growing along the coastal plain that extends from North Carolina to Texas.
This is a deciduous species that grows really well sandy soils, which is primarily why it is often called by its other common name ‘sand holly’.
Carolina holly grows to an average height of 15 to 20 feet and prefers growing under full sun to partially shaded conditions. The branches of this tree are usually covered shiny black or dark brown bark that eventually flakes off as the tree begins to age.
The habitat of this holly species ranges from sand scrubs and hammocks to woodlands to hardwood forests. You can also expect to find them growing with pines like shortleaf pine, loblolly, slash and several kinds of oak species.
This holly variety is also called evergreen winterberry, gallberry and Appalachian tea. Inkberry Holly (ilex glabra) is native to the coastal plain of eastern North America and is also found in the west of Louisiana. It is typically found in peripheries of bogs and swamps, and can also be found in sandy wood areas.
This variety is a slow-growing broadleaf and evergreen shrub that is quite easy to grow and offers a striking color in the winter season. It grows in an upward clumping manner and typically reaches a height of 5-8 feet. The leaves sport a dark green color and their shape ranges from oval to elliptical.
In their native growing locations, inkberry holly prefers woodland soils that are sandy and acidic. Their unique name is a reference to the fruits produced by this plant and its other name ‘gallberry’ has been derived from the fact that once upon a time, black ink was made with the help of galls of oaks.
This species is also called ‘sky pencil’ which is one of its cultivars. This cultivar is quite dramatic that grows less than 2 feet wide and in terms of height, it manages to grow as tall as 10 feet. This tree is often even referred to as ‘box-leaved holly’ due to the fact that its leaves are quite similar in appearance to those of boxwood shrubs.
Japanese holly trees have quite a soft texture as compared to the Chinese varieties. The fruit produced by these trees are black in color and not as attractive as those produced by the other species in the same genus. These trees don’t thrive or do really well in regions with hot weather; however, they do manage to tolerate colder temperatures.
Another cultivar of the Japanese holly is called Compacta which is quite a neat, globe-shaped group of trees.
Blue Princess Holly
This is a female cultivar that belongs to the blue holly group and is marked by its dark green leaves that are super glossy, moderately spiny and give off a kind of a bluish cast. The flowers bloom in spring and are usually inconspicuous, and they come with bright red berries.
The Blue Princess holly prefers growing in moist, well-drained soils as well as full sun to partial shade conditions. They grow to an average height of 15 feet a 10-foot spread. They are the standard type of evergreen hollies that are found in most garden centers and nurseries.
The most striking feature of these trees is their brightly colored fruit that grows on purple stems and provides a breathtaking contrast against the dense, blue-green foliage throughout the entire winter season.
This type of holly is best known as a drought-tolerant tree and is native to the southeastern United States. It is also known as evergreen holly, Indian black drink, Christmas berry and Cassina. The name ‘Indian black drink’ in particular has resulted from the fact that the berries of this holly species were once used by Native Americans in one of their special ceremonial drinks.
Yaupon holly (Ilex Vomitoria) is a small evergreen shrub that is characterized by its red berries and green leaves that create a wonderful landscape. It prefers full sun and well-drained, humus-rich and moderately fertile soils in order to grow to perfection.
The leaves of this tree are quite glossy and oval in shape with fine-toothed margins. The tree is typically used to create informal hedges and can also be used for screening purposes in swampy areas.
Are you ready to decorate your house with beautiful holly trees the next Christmas season?
Home Stratosphere is an award-winning home and garden online publication that’s a result of our talented researchers and writers who work directly with hundreds of professional interior designers, furniture designers, landscape designers and architects from around the world to create helpful, informative, entertaining and inspiring articles and design galleries.