As deciduous plants drop their leaves, now is a good time to appreciate one of our native evergreen trees. American holly (Ilex opaca) is a medium-sized tree with simple, evergreen leaves that have spines. It is found in every region of the state, from the mountains to the Coastal Plain. Like other hollies, it is dioecious which means that plants usually have either male or female flowers but not both. The tiny white flowers bloom in May and properly pollinated female flowers form fruits that turn bright red in the fall.
I don’t often see the straight species in landscapes because cultivars are so popular. American holly-dahoon holly hybrids (Ilex opaca hybridized with Ilex cassine = Ilex x attenuata ) seem to be the most used. These hybrids have fewer prickles on the leaves and fruit very heavily. You may see them sold as ‘Savannah,’ ‘Fosteri’ and ‘East Palatka.’ These cultivars have the pyramidal shape of the American holly, but the leaves are different. American holly has small spines that evenly cover the leaf margins while the cultivars typically have a spine at the tip and a few others, none of which are very big.
In the wild, Providence Canyon State Park has a nice population of American holly all along the 3-mile loop trail. I visited the park one December and there were many individuals with fruit. The evergreen nature of the tree really stands out during the winter months so they’re easy to spot. There is also a nice single tree at Dunwoody Nature Center; it is in the landscaped area in front of the original building and usually has a good fruit set. Sometimes you can find them in old cemeteries too.
If American holly is native to your area, I hope that you will consider planting this unique native tree. Tolerant of many different soils and amounts of light, American holly is a versatile plant for the landscape. You’ll also be getting a great plant for wildlife – I’ve read that as many as 18 different species of birds eat the fruit and of course it is a great plant for shelter.