The American Holly Tree - Range, Growing Requirements, and Ecology

by cazort

Use of American Holly tree in gardening and landscaping; growing requirements, size, and advantages over non-native hollies when grown in or near its native range.

The American Holly is a species of holly native to the southeastern U.S. It is a widely used landscape plant, both within and slightly beyond its native range. Although it is widely used, I think it is still under-utilized; some gardeners still plant non-native hollies, such as the English holly.

I hope this page will convince people living in the native range of this plant to plant it instead of non-native alternatives. I also provide a lot of considerations for planting this plant, that will help you to grow it most effectively if you do choose to grow it. Lastly, you'll find a few recommendations of other native holly species.

This page is oriented towards a North American audience, especially the Eastern U.S.

Growing Conditions and Requirements

An adaptable tree: requires protection from wind on the coldest sites

The American Holly is an adaptable plant.  It grows naturally as an understory plant, and tolerate quite a lot of shade.  It can even grow under a closed forest canopy.

This species is not picky about soil.  It grows well in both wet and dry soils, and can tolerate quite nutrient-poor soils.  It is somewhat tolerant of salt spray: much more so than most other forest trees.

It tolerates pruning well, and can even be grown as a hedge.

In areas where deer or other grazing animals damage gardens, this is a good tree to plant: its tough, thorny leaves are usually ignored by deer unless no other food is available.

In most of its native range, this tree thrives with little care.  Towards the north end of its range, and especially when planted farther north than it naturally occurs, protection from cold is a major issue.  The most damaging conditions for this plant are cold, windy days when the soil is frozen.  When growing this plant in the colder parts of its range, plant it in as sheltered a location as possible.  This tree is the most cold-hardy of the large broadleaf evergreen trees.  It can be grown significantly farther north than the Southern Magnolia.

Native Range of the American Holly

This map shows where this tree grows naturally; it can be grown in gardens a bit beyond this range.
Range Map for the American Holly
Range Map for the American Holly

Native American Holly vs. Other Hollies

Choose native hollies for both practical and ecological reasons.

In the past, it was common for gardeners and landscapers in the U.S. to plant a variety of non-native hollies, including the English Holly, and various Asian species of holly.

Even when they grow well, these plants are a poor ecological choice, because they do not support as many native insects and spiders, and thus, do not support as many native birds.  In some parts of the U.S., some holly species can become invasive.  In other parts, they don't grow as well.

Advantages of planting Native Hollies:

The American Holly is the most cold-hardy of all the large hollies.  It can be grown farther north and in colder regions than any other large holly.  I have even seen these trees growing in Cleveland, Ohio.

But the biggest advantage of using native plants are the benefits to the local ecosystems.

Benefits to Wildlife and Local Ecology

The berries of the American Holly are highly valued by native birds, such as the American Robin and Northern Mockingbird, as they are on the tree in winter when fewer food sources are available.  Small mammals also sometimes eat the seeds.

Planting an American Holly is one of the most reliable ways to attract fruit-loving birds to your yard in winter.  The dense evergreen foliage also provides shelter for animals during winter months.

The flowers, which are inconspicuous but sweet smelling, attract native pollinators including bees during the day and moths at night.

The tree also provides numerous other benefits to wildlife.  In the southeast, the endangered Red Cockaded woodpecker will nest in this tree.

Swainson's Thrush in an American Holly
Swainson's Thrush in an American Holly
An American Robin Eating Holly Berries in Winter
An American Robin Eating Holly Berries in Winter

Other Holly Species Native to North America

For smaller sites, colder climates, or caffeine lovers

The American holly is a large tree, not suitable for every site.  In warm climates, it requires either a lot of space or active pruning.  If you want a smaller tree, I recommend checking out some of the other species:

  • Inkberry (Ilex glabra) - A small, compact evergreen bush.  Makes an outstanding landscape plant where space is an issue, such as in small areas around buildings.
  • American Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) - A deciducous holly (losing its leaves), very cold hardy, and able to be grown at high elevations and farther north than any evergreen species can survive.  Naturally occurs into Canada, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and Maine.
  • Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) - A small evergreen holly native to the southeastern U.S., Yaupon is the only plant native to North America that is used to produce a caffeinated drink.

In very cold climates (Minnesota, Canada, etc.) it may not be possible to grow the evergreen species, but Winterberry is a better option.

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Updated: 08/11/2013, cazort
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cazort on 06/22/2013

That's good to hear the Winterberry does well where you are, kimbesa! You're in Indiana?

You are in the mid hudson valley, jptanabe? I bet you could grow the American holly where you are. It just won't grow quite as big, but it would probably do fine if it's in a sheltered location. I've seen them grown successfully in Cleveland, which I think is much colder than where you live...but their its growth tends to be stunted, and I do think city heat and the sheltering effect of the lake does make it possible to grow some things in Cleveland that wouldn't grow in the rest of Ohio.

jptanabe on 06/22/2013

I live north of the range of this American holly, but thanks for the introduction! Maybe we can try the Winterberry instead.

kimbesa on 06/21/2013

We had Winterberry, and they did quite well with our cold and snowy winters.

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