Winter Solstice and Hollies

American holly (Ilex opaca)
Plants, especially evergreens, have long played a role in celebrating pagan and religious events and holidays. When celebrating the holidays this year think about planting some native hollies in your landscape. Evergreen hollies are good for screening and offer excellent habitat for birds, while deciduous hollies offer outstanding beauty of berries on naked branches.

Hollies are dioecious, which means that trees will bear either male or female flowers, but not both. The female trees bear those attractive berries. (Nurseries should label whether a holly is a male or a female. Be sure there is at least one male tree in the neighborhood or your female trees won’t produce berries.) Hollies grow best in acidic soil and once they are established, require little care. The USDA reports that the biggest destroyer of holly trees is not disease or insects, but people harvesting its branches for the Christmas trade!

Hollies are one of the few trees found in all fifty states, and indeed are found in much of the world. The Christmas legends are based on the English holly (Ilex aquifolium), which is evergreen and most resembles our American holly (Ilex opaca). A classic holly, it has dark shiny evergreen leaves with sharp spines.

Holly legends abound. It was included in the evergreens brought in during the winter to provide safe haven for the gods of spring; but was especially prized because of its shiny leaves and its ability to bear fruit in winter. Some people used holly bark to make a syrup to cure coughs; others hung it over their beds to produce good dreams. Romans often gave holly to celebrate Saturnalia, the winter solstice celebration in honor of their god, Saturn. Christians adapted some of the pagan legends, and some English traditions named holly the "holy tree." Some say that the sharp leaves symbolized the crown of thorns and the red berries represented the blood of Christ. Legend says that hollies sprang forth wherever He walked.

A Celtic holly legend pits the twin brothers, the Holly King and the Oak King, against each other to explain winter & summer, good & evil, and dark & light. Somewhere in this story we also meet Robin Hood, St. George, who slew the dark Turkish knight who turned out to be his brother, and St. Nicholas, disguised as the Holly King. The carol “The Holly and the Ivy” alludes to these struggles, and the holly wins during the winter because it’s evergreen. “The holly and the ivy, When they are both full grown, Of all the trees that are in the wood, The holly bears the crown.”

At some point in the traditional European tales, genders were assigned, and because holly is strong, it represented the male. Ivy’s clinging habit and its need to lean on something to grow represented the female role. (These tales were not politically correct!) Ironically, those highly-prized holly boughs with the magnificent red berries are from female trees!

So deck the hall with boughs of holly!

Hollies native to Florida are easy to grow, provide beauty and good wildlife habitat values to your property. All of these hollies have good-sized berries growing up to 10mm or almost 1/2 inch in diameter. If you're not near an indigenous population, remember to plant some male trees if you want the females to bear fruit. Most hollies prefer or require acidic soil to thrive. This list includes the Florida planting zones and links to their profiles on the Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants website--our go to reference.

· American holly (Ilex opaca): A classic evergreen holly with bright red berries grows to 50 feet tall. Its sharply pointed leaves drop year-round so plant away from barefooted traffic areas. Zones 8 – 9.

· Carolina holly, Sand holly (I. ambigua): a deciduous, drought-tolerant tall shrub growing to 18 feet tall. It has red berries. Deciduous hollies make quite a statement in the landscape because only their berries are left on the stems during the winter months. Zones 8 – 9.

· Dahoon holly (I. cassine): an evergreen, gray-barked tree growing to 35 feet tall. Its berries can be red, orange or yellow. In the wild, the Dahoon usually seen with a more open canopy, but trees grown in yards with full sun may develop more densely, and have a conical shape. The Dahoon has the ability to regenerate from the roots if it is damaged by falling trees. Tolerant of wet or dry soils. Widely available in the nursery trade. Zones 8 – 11.

Open canopy of wild Dahoon

Dahoon holly berries

· Sweet gallberry (I. coriacea): typically an evergreen shrub, but sometimes growing to 20 feet tall. It's tolerant of standing water and bears black berries that are flattened on top. Zones 8 – 9. This holly is not as abundant as the other back-berried holly, inkberry. The distinguishing feature are the leaves: The inkberry leaves are slightly crenate (scalloped) toward the tip and the sweet gallberry leaves are not crenate and have minute black dots on their undersides.

· Inkberry (I. glabra): an evergreen shrub with black berries growing to 6 feet tall. Tolerant of wet or dry conditions, it often grows at the edge of wooded areas. It colonizes slowly but is kept in place easily. You can keep it quite low if you wish to prune it back. In the photo you can see how it fills in whatever space is provided. Zones 8 – 11.
Mature stand of Ilex glabra

Black berries of Ilex glabra

Young Ilex glabra

· East Palatka holly (I. x attenuata "East Palatka"): A drought-tolerant, evergreen tree growing to 25 feet. Its red berries are abundant. This is a naturally occurring hybrid of an American holly and a dahoon holly. There are many cultivars and this is widely available. Zones 8 – 9.

· Yaupon holly (I. vomitoria): an evergreen shrub or small tree growing to 24 feet tall. Its leaves are slightly scalloped. It was widely used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes--its Latinized name is appropriate. Zones 8 – 9.

Celebrate the winter solstice by planting some native hollies in your yard. The birds will thank you.

Brazillian pepper is sometimes called the Florida holly.
Don't be fooled: this is an invasive poison ivy relative.
Note: The so-called Florida holly is the invasive Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolia). It's not a holly at all, but a member of the poison ivy family. It bears reddish berries, but the leaves are compound. Rip it out wherever you find it on your property, but be careful not to touch the plant with bare skin and don't burn it because it gives most folks a rash like its cousin, poison ivy. Millions of public and private dollars have been spent removing this invasive pest from Florida's wild areas.

Ginny Stibolt
sue dingwell


Anonymous said…
Good coverage on our native hollies. Interesting to learn about sweet gallberries. Who knew?

Merry Christmas to all you jolly bloggers and thanks for all your good posts.

V. Avery
Thanks, V. Avery, for your good wishes, and especially for your comments! We really appreciate your interest. Best wishes to you, too, and a Happy New Year! Come back and talk to us in 2011!!

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