Fruitful Winter Hollies

Plant of the Week
December 16, 2006

Fruitful Winter HolliesThe name holly is thought to have derived from the word origin ‘holy’. In certain parts of Europe stems of hollies were historically used in decorating to rejoice and honoring the birth of the Christ child. Folklore says that holly berries were once yellow, and were stained from the wounds sustained by the crown from Christ’s crucification and have since remained red.
Hollies remind us of the Christmas season, since many of the plants fruitful berries are prominent and showy at this time. The evergreen holly is considered, by many landscape designers, the most versatile of the landscape ornamentals. They aren’t used enough in San Antonio and South Texas even though they are amazingly tolerant of our fluctuating temperatures and harsh soil extremes.

There are many types of hollies available for today’s landscape. One of the unusual things about this grouping of plants is that they are named after countries. Hollies that can be grown here are classified as American and Chinese. Here is some information on the best grown holly plants for our area.

Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is a Texas native, and is perhaps the most popular holly in our area. It is dense and bushy, and can easily grow into a small evergreen tree. Female plants produce small, shiny red berries; one of the best is named Pride of Houston. It can be used as a tall clipped hedge. There also exists a yellow-berried type named Saratoga Gold.

Dwarf Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana’) is one of the finest hollies available for low hedges. Unlike its parents, this selection is compact and slow-growing. You may want to ask for the Stokes or Shillings varieties. These produce small, fine-textured leaves and have a formal, rounded shape. They are very tough ornamentals that will tolerate hot, dry locations.

Burford holly (Ilex cornuta) produces very glossy, dark green foliage. Generally, only one leaf spine is present, and this is at the tip of the leaf. This very popular and widely used landscape holly produces an excellent crop of berries each year. Burford grows quite large, often reaching 10 to 12 feet.

Dwarf Burford Holly (Ilex cornuta ‘Nana’)has characteristics similar to Burford holly. The glossy dark green leaves are smaller, and growth rate is slower. The leaves, generally, have only one spine at the tip. Dwarf Burford will grow to a height of at least four to six feet if not pruned heavily.

‘Rotunda’ Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta ‘rotunda’) is one of the most satisfactory shrubs available. This variety is quite different from other Chinese hollies in that it has a dwarf habit of growth and a rounded shape. An important advantage is that little or no pruning is required to produce a compact plant. ‘Rotunda’ will tolerate hot, dry locations that would injure other shrubs. It is viciously thorny and sterile (no berries).

Some of the most outstanding holly varieties developed recently are crosses between many holly species.

Nellie R. Stevens’s holly is an introduction believed to be a cross between English and Chinese holly. This fast-growing variety has excellent dark green foliage and large, red berries. It needs space to develop since it will grow into a small tree. This is perhaps the most appropriate holly for Christmas decoration in this region.

People are always commenting on the beautiful, berry-laden holly which is leafless in the fall and growing along roadways.
Deciduous Yaupon or Possum-Haw Holly (Ilex deciduas) is the native holly. There are male and female plants, but vegetative propagation techniques have favored the berry-producing females as shown on the front picture.

If you want a holly hedge, don’t overlook Needlepoint holly (Ilex cornuta). The variety “Dazzler” is a good berry producer but thorny, so don’t expect the neighborhood kids to come visiting after you plant it.

Well, as you can see, hollies are suited for everyone’s landscape. The Christmas time is the season to re-evaluate hollies for the landscape and realize that they are one of the, if not the, most adapted plants for this area. Those of us who remember the extreme cold of ’83 and ’89 will also remember that hollies survived and thrived through San Antonio’s worse winters; then more commonly planted pittosporums that were frozen and killed out.

So get out there to your favorite nursery/garden center and add some hollies to your landscape.

Remember, Learn and Have Fun!

David Rodriguez is the County Extension Agent-Horticulture for Bexar County. He represents Texas Cooperative Extension with the Texas A&M University System. For any landscape or gardening information, call the Bexar County Master Gardeners Hotline at (210) 467-6575, e-mail questions to, or visit our County Extension website at

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