When most people think of holly (Ilex spp.) leaves, the traditional English holly (Ilex aquifolium) usually comes to mind, with its glossy, spiny leaves and bright red berries. But the Ilex family actually includes species and cultivars that feature a broad range of foliage colors, shapes and sizes. Many, like English holly, have spiny leaves that can hurt little hands, so if you have young children, choose a holly with softer leaves.
Most holly plants have evergreen leaves that remain on the bush all year long. Hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 7 through 9, English holly can grow to heights of 30 feet or more and is usually cultivated as a tree. Easy to grow, it is considered invasive in some areas. Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) has evergreen leaves that are slender and ovate, with finely-toothed edges. Not only are they free of the spines that can injure little hands, but their tough, leathery texture makes it difficult for curious children to damage them. Yaupon holly is hardy in USDA zones 7 through 9, grows to 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide, and makes an excellent hedge plant.
Some holly species have deciduous leaves, which change color and drop from the plant in the fall. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is so-named for the masses of bright red berries that cling to the shrub's branches throughout the winter months after the leaves have fallen. Winterberry grows best in USDA zones 3 through 9. Possumhaw (Ilex decidua) is another, lesser-known deciduous holly. Its leaves turn yellow in the fall and drop off, but the orange berries, which attract birds and deer, persist through the winter. Possemhaw grows best in USDA zones 5 through 9.
Most holly leaves are dark or medium green with a glossy finish, but a few species and cultivars break from the standard. Ilex x meserveae "Blue Prince" has leaves that have a distinctly blue hue. Commonly called blue holly, it is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 7 and has evergreen, finely-toothed foliage. Although attractive, it has thorns, so teach children and pets to be wary. American holly (Ilex opaca) is the rare example of a holly species with dull leaves. The foliage has a light silvery-green matte finish. American holly thrives in USDA zones 5 through 9 and also has thorns.
Many holly species have leaves lined with spines, but some do not. Longstalk holly (Ilex pedunculosa) features long, slender, slightly-drooping leaves. The evergreen leaves are smooth on the edges, which is unusual in a holly plant. The berries are as distinctive as the leaves, growing on long stalks. Longstalk holly is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 8. Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta) also has unusual leaves, each tipped with three spines, almost rectangular in shape. Chinese holly prefers warmer temperatures and is hardy in USDA zones 7 through 9.
- University of Rhode Island Landscape Horticulture Program: Hollies
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Ilex Aquifolium
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Ilex Vomitoria
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Ilex Verticillata
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Ilex Decidua
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Ilex x Meserveae "Blue Prince"
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Ilex Opaca
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Ilex Pedunculosa
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Ilex Cornuta
- Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images