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Holly Trees (Ilex) 

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The holly tree grows widespread throughout the world. You will find this genus growing in most temperate and subtropical regions. Scientists categorize over 560 species to the holly genus. Also, the species are evergreen or deciduous. The holly species grow at all levels of elevation from sea level to mountainous terrain.

Overall, all species in the genus grow slowly and are usually small. The berries are unique on the holly as they ripen in winter. Moreover, the berries boast a beautiful hue of red or brown. This color stands out against the snow. We use them throughout European and American cultures to decorate at Christmas as they add a pop of color. While the berries are toxic to humans, many species of animals depend on the holly “berry”.

In North America, we grow holly commercially, primarily for Christmas decorations, and birds scatter the berries so well that we consider the holly an invasive species. However, the species that are native to the tropical climates are threatened because of deforestation.

So How Many Kinds of Holly Trees Are There?

Botanists categorize over 560 species to the holly genus, Ilex. It is the only living genus in the Holly (Aquifoliaceae) family. Furthermore, the genus is split into 3 subgenera. The Ilex Byronia only contains one species. Also, the Ilex Prinos contains 12 more species. Finally, the Ilex Ilex contains the remaining species.

The genus is old. We have evidence supporting the holly all the way to the Tertiary period. The variety of the genus is immense. The different plants range from 2 feet in height to 80 feet in height. According to The Spruce, the five most popular holly trees are:

  • Blue Princess Holly
  • Japanese Holly
  • Sky Pencil Holly
  •  Inkberry Holly
  • Winter Berry

Europe only claims one native species, the Ilex aquifolium, more commonly known as the English holly. Additionally, there is only one species native to Africa, Ilex mitis. All things considered, North America and China claim the most species of variety around the world.

How Large Do Holly Trees Grow?

The entire holly species varies in size. In fact, there are species like shrubs and bushes that only grow 2 feet in height. Other species grow up to 80 feet in height. To be sure, the American holly can reach 60 feet if they are truly thriving. However, in most circumstances, they only reach 30 feet. The trees grow to 30 feet in width as well. Also, the English holly grows to a similar size of the American holly but does not reach the same maximum.

What Does a Holly Tree Look Like?

The leaves of the holly are thick and glossy. Also, the leaves are spiky shaped. The holly grows small white flowers and holly berries. The leaves create a thinner canopy compared to other trees. However, the species that are shrubs are denser and ideal for security hedges. The berries are actually considered to be drupes. The fruit forms around the seed, which has an outer shell.

Holly Berries

The berries are usually red, but can also be yellow, brown, or black. Overall, they are small in size, similar to blueberries.

Where Can I Find a Holly Tree?

The holly tree grows in many parts of the world. They range from temperate to tropical zones. Additionally, a few locations only claim one native species, while the Americas and Asia have significant diversity. The English holly calls Europe home and is the only holly species native to the entire continent. However, in Southeast Asia, many species grow. Most of these species are endemic and in a unique, single location. Finally, South America can even boast holly trees.

Holly grows in locations around the world. All things considered, holly grow in North America, South America, Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, the Mediterranean, and even Australia.

How Long Can a Holly Tree Live?

The lifespan of a holly depends on many factors, primarily the species. All things considered; most holly trees live for one hundred years. In Europe, many trees live 150 years with ease while in America, most holly live 100 years. Per the Arbor Day Foundation, the first scientific observation of an American Holly was in 1744.

Can I Grow a Holly Tree?

Holly grow just about anywhere in the world. This means you can add one to your backyard or garden with ease. If you desire, a holly tree will grow well from a seed. Just remember that the holly species grows slowly. To start your holly tree from a seed, you will need to pick holly berries in the late autumn (around the end of November).

Once picked, you will need to pre-treat the seeds in a sand mixture. Line a pot with a layer of stones and add the sand and seed mixture. You will place the pot outside in a shady area and it will live in the pot for over a year. Water it to remain moisture, but do not flood the seeds. During the second spring, you will sow the seeds into its own individual pot. The sapling will need another year before it can find its permanent location. Finally, holly seeds do not sustain transplanting well, so pick your location with the full size of the tree in mind.

Holly's need to have ample water initially and will always desire a moist soil. If you find a suitable spot, the holly is one of the easiest trees to grow. The soil type does not seem to bother the holly. Once established, the holly grows in full sun or partial shade. However, the more sun the holly receives, the denser the canopy or bush grows.

It is Time to BRANCH out into some fun tree facts!

  • The oldest holly tree lived to over 600 years old in Spain.
  • If a holly tree has berries, it is a female tree.
  • A Welsh Christmas carol from the 16th century tells us to “Deck the halls with boughs of holly”.

What Are Some Uses For Holly Trees?

Natural Uses

While the holly tree produces berries, humans cannot consume them as they are slightly toxic. Given these points, the berries are a strong laxative and diuretic. They can also produce violent vomiting. There are medical situations where those qualities are desired, such as another form of poisoning. While consuming holly berries will make you violently ill, there is a very low chance it is fatal. However, many animals and especially birds, depend on the holly berries for sustenance. Humans throughout history have found uses for the other portions of the holly. We can boil the leaves into teas, which help ease the symptoms of sinus colds, the flu, and the measles. We can also apply topically them for itchy skin. The bark was previously used to treat malaria and even epilepsy. To this day, the Chinese use holly to treat all kinds of ailments, including tuberculosis.

Artistic Uses

The holly berries are synonymous with Christmas and winter. The beautiful red berries stand out against the winter snow. Artists use it to add a pop of color to winter landscapes. As shown above, the holly berries even make mention in the Christmas melody, “Deck the Halls”. This tradition originally stems from the ancient Romans who associated holly berries with the god, Saturn. Moreover, the holly exists heavily in legends. Druids assigned magical powers to the holly tree. The tree had some control over immortality. Cutting down a holly tree was considered being bad luck, but decorating with the boughs in wintertime would bring fairies and good luck. Fables even told women to leave holly leaves under their pillows so they would dream of their future husband. Overall, many often saw holly as a wonderful gift to give to newlyweds.

Residential/Commercial Uses

The lumber cut from a holly tree is non-durable. It is incredibly susceptible to insect attack. Also, the wood contains significant knotting with an interlocking grain. This makes it very difficult to work. The most significant uses for holly wood are for furniture, broom handles, and the black piano keys. However, holly is the lightest or whitest color wood, and many seek it out for high-precision items and expensive adornments.

Wrap Up

The holly tree is a small, and slow growing tree that holds great significance in cultures throughout history. With over 500 species, the holly tree grows just about anywhere from Australia to China and from South America to North America. While we do not use the wood from the holly tree very often, it is revered for the luck and prosperity it brings. In many cultures, cutting a holly tree down would bring bad luck.

Holly trees are easy to grow and add a beautiful pop of color to your winter backyard landscape. Furthermore, the shrub species of holly makes excellent privacy shrubs. The average height of a holly tree is 60 feet, though there are shrub species that only reach a couple of feet. If you are looking to add a striking pop of color to your yard and want a tree that is easy to grow (and will thrive just about anywhere), the holly tree is the one for you.

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