Holly is a beautiful plant that is used for landscaping and often featured in Christmas decorations in America and in other places. It isn’t difficult to grow or to find, which adds to its popularity. It has been used for decorations since Roman times.
The genus name of holly is Ilex and there are well over 350 species which grow in almost every state and under a wide range of conditions. This is a plant that is also grown in England and elsewhere. Ilex is highly adaptive, which is one reason it is often popular with landscapers and homeowners. The plant prefers well draining soils.
Some species are low growing and ground hugging, not much taller than 10 inches. Others grow very tall, to over 50 feet in height. Holly can grow as dense bushes, though branch diameters rarely exceed two inches for the bushier species. Those specimens that are only a few feet tall often form such a thick mass of intertwining branches and leaves that they are idea for cover for small wild animals.
The wood of Ilex is white and it can be polished to a glossy sheen, with a strong grain to lend support to masses of leaves. The leaves are dark green, sometimes with white along the edge, relatively thick and strong, shiny and have spines an the leaf edge, alternating between pointing up and pointing down. The spines function as protection to the plant, as many animals find the leaves succulent and good to eat. Despite the protection, some animals, such as deer, still eat the leaves and fruit.
In the late summer to early fall, holly bushes put out small white to yellowish flowers. These are sweet scented, and after pollination, yield berries. As the berries ripen, they turn brilliant red, usually becoming fully ripe by Christmas time. This is a major reason holly is used in Christmas decorations. The berries provide food for birds and other wildlife in the winter months. However, though holly has on occasion been used medicinally, the berries are toxic to humans and should not be consumed. Special care should be given to make sure that children can’t get to the berries.
Holly is sometimes confused with Oregon grapes. The general appearance of the two plants is similar, however Oregon grape has a yellow blossoms and the fruit is dark blue when it is ripe. The Oregon grape fruit is also edible.
Ilex is an attractive and hardy plant, suitable for holiday decorations as long as reasonable care is given for safety.