Ilex aquifolium

Leaves and berries of Ilex aquifolium (holly).
Ilex aquifolium (Common Holly)
  • Common name: Common Holly
  • Type: Evergreen small tree/large shrub
  • Height and spread: 12 m by 6 to 8 m
  • Aspect: Sun or partial shade
  • Hardiness: Fully hardy 
  • Care: Easy

Grown for its shiny evergreen leaves and bright red or yellow autumn berries. 

Want to find it at Reveley? As well as a low hedge near the entrance to the garden there are several specimens are dotted around the grounds (including a couple of variegated species).

Holly is characterized by its glossy, spiny, dark green leaves (aquifolium means pointed leaves), which can live for up to 5 years on the plant; bright red berries will appear on pollinated female plants in autumn and last well into late winter, provided the birds don’t find them first. Ilex is a native of Britain and it is often one of the first plants to re-populate open areas and the edges of woodland or forest.  It will grow almost anywhere being tolerant of almost any conditions.  

Ilex is a slow grower. Ilex is dioecious which means that they are male or female plants.  Berries only appear on the female plants which need nearby male plants to fertilize them.  If you want berries, buy your plants in the autumn when you can see the berries actually on the plant.  Most Ilex will start flowering when between 4 and 12 years old.  Don’t go by name alone for instance Ilex aquifolium ‘Victoria’ is actually a male plant, the same goes for Ilex ‘Silver Queen’ a variegated form which is male!

Ilex grows best in well-drained soil in either full sun or partial shade.  Propagate by seed in spring or semi hardwood cuttings (current season’s growth) in late summer to mid-autumn.  Prune in late winter or early spring.  Ilex can be cut into basic topiary shapes, such as pyramid or spiral.  

Black blotches on leaves leading to die back of stems may be caused by holly leaf blight.  Cut out affect areas and destroy, do not compost, and remove all leaves which have dropped off the plant.  Wear gloves to protect your hands from the vicious spines.  One unexpected pest in recent years are… humans.  Due to the high demand for natural greenery in our houses at Christmas, many roadside bushes have been stripped of their foliage and even cut down.  It is an offence to cut down trees by the roadside.

Ilex can be grown in the mixed border, its dark foliage is an excellent foil for plants with contrasting foliage such as Choisya or those with variegated leaves.  The berries are loved by birds and small rodents, but toxic to humans, cats and dogs.  Grow as a hedge, it’s prickly leaves can be a deterrent to burglars.  For harvesting its seasonal berries, a top tip, literally, is that the foliage at the top of the plant tends to be less spiny making it easier to handle.   

The folklore behind the use of holly at Christmas is that the spiky leaves represent Christ’s crown of thorns and the red berries his blood.  There are many superstitions that accompany holly, did you know that it is thought to be unlucky to bring holly into the house before Christmas Eve?  It was believed that holly trees could not be struck by lightning – making them a safe place to shelter in a storm… don’t try this at home.

In heraldry, holly is used to symbolise truth.