Florida’s Useful Hollies

American holly

American holly

At Christmas time we see holly leaves in garlands, decorative sprays, and on Christmas cards. The holly is too valuable a plant to limit it to a few weeks per year. Florida has several native hollies. They have a rich history and are worthy of an increased presence in our public and private landscapes. The three hollies mentioned here have different sizes and growth habits, but also have some basic similarities. All are evergreen and beautify the landscape throughout the year.

American Holly (Ilex opaca)

This is a holly with the spiny leaves we see in traditional Christmas decorations. This holly is native to Florida and much of the United States and is known as American Holly.  Historically, Native Americans used preserved holly berries as decorative buttons and valuable trade goods. The wood of this holly also has been used for making canes, scroll work, and furniture.

American holly grows symmetrically, with dense leaves and branches in a pyramid-like shape. It grows in a variety of conditions: sun, shade, sand, loam, clay, acidic to slightly alkaline soil, and can tolerate flooding or well-drained soils. It can be used as a specimen, hedge, or screen and can survive urban conditions including parking lot islands, sidewalk cutouts and highway medians.

American holly, like most of our native hollies, has berries on the female that remain on the plant through fall and winter and are a valuable food source for wildlife, especially birds. (Note: although birds can eat holly berries, they are toxic to humans.) Only female hollies bear berries, although both sexes flower. To have fruit, a pollinator must transfer pollen from male to female plants. Three notable American holly cultivars are “Calloway” (for yellow fruit); “Stewart’s Cream Crown” (for creamy, marginal veins) and “Yellow Jacket” (orange fruit).

Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria)
Yaupon hollies

Yaupon holly

Yaupon is a small-leaved holly whose cultivars come in several shapes and sizes, including dwarf forms that can be used in hedges as a substitute for boxwood. Although this holly has a medium growth rate overall, young plants grow quickly, making this an ideal plant for topiary. Other varieties include a small (15-25 foot) tree with a vase-like shape and another with a weeping form.

Native Americans in the Southeast used Yaupon holly to make arrows and roasted leaves and shoots to make a dark, tea-like drink called “black drink”. This drink was used medicinally to induce vomiting.  It was also used in purification ceremonies. When brewed less heavily, it was used as a drink to indicate friendly intentions toward guests. Yaupon is the only native American plant that contains caffeine and therefore was used as a caffeine substitute by Southerners during the Civil War. Yaupon tea is experiencing a revival today. It contains more antioxidants than green or black tea and is currently being sold by several small companies in the U.S.

Dahoon Holly (Ilex cassine)
Dahoon hollies

Dahoon holly

This is the perfect holly for a wet place in your yard, although it can tolerate drier locations with some watering. It generally grows between 20 and 30 feet tall and 8-12 feet wide. It is a beautifully shaped tree with a fairly open canopy. The leaves are 2-3 inches long and have a few serrations near the tip.  Dahoon can tolerate moderate salt spray. Its fruit attracts cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, robins and many other birds.

If you’d like to purchase any of these hollies and want one with berries, consider purchasing it during fall or winter when the trees are in fruit. That way you’ll be certain you’re buying a female and you’ll be able to see which cultivars bear the most fruit. Hollies are best planted away from the house because they are flammable. If you would like learn more about these hollies, here are some links:

American Holly:  https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/media/sfylifasufledu/baker/docs/pdf/horticulture/demonstration-gardens/American-Holly.pdf

Yaupon Holly:  http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/trees-and-shrubs/shrubs/yaupon-holly.html

Dahoon Holly:  https://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/woody/Pages/ilecas/ilecas.shtml

If you have questions or concerns, check with the Master Gardeners at 671-8400 for additional information that you may need.