Deck the Halls With Native Holly

Topics: Native Plants

Yaupon Holly
Plants from the holly family are often used “to deck our halls” during the holiday season.  The boughs are cuttings from any evergreen tree or shrub of the Ilex genus. Most hollies are evergreen making them a desirable landscape plant for winter because they add color and life in the dead of winter.

There are well over 400 species of hollies. Less than one hundred are native to North Carolina, however, and less than twenty are native to the N.C. coast. Their shiny green leaves are stiff, most are pointed and spine-tipped. The fruit varies in color -- white, orange, or yellow -- with the most common red. The berries can often remain on the plant until spring. The flowers are greenish-white and not all that showy.

Here’s a partial list of coastal natives:

  • Ilex cassine, or dahoon,  grows up to 30 high feet in the wild. Foliage lacks the prominent spines or teeth like the American holly. Fruit sets in fall and winter. It is a worthwhile but underused plant.
  • Ilex glabra, or inkberry, grows up to 8 feet tall. It’s an important nectar source for honeybees.
  • Ilex myrtfolia, or myrtle dahoon, grows up to 20 feet high. It’s closely related to dahoon, bur its leaves are much more narrow and linear. Berries mature in the autumn. This is an attractive and unique holly that deserves a wider use in the landscape.
  • Ilex opaca, or American holly, grows up to 50 feet high with a distinct pyramidal or conical habit. Mature trees have a very attractive bark.
  • Ilex verticillata, or common winterberry, should mature at between 6-10 feet in height.
  • Ilex vomitoria, or yaupon holly, is a versatile evergreen that tolerates wet or normal soils, sun or shade. Overall one of the most valued landscape hollies.

American hollyThe Ilex is rich in history, and the foliage, fruit and wood have many unique uses. One quaint custom is to place sprigs of holly on bee hives in December, wishing even the bees a merry Christmas. Holly has medicinal uses as well. The leaves of yaupon were roasted and added to water to make a black brew drunk to cleanse the body before ceremonies. The berries were preserved to use as clothing and hair ornamentation. You can find the wood of holly used to make chess boards or even a piano.

The fruits are eaten by birds and mammals. When planted to form dense stands, it offers additional value for year-round shelter for animals.

Plant a native holly to deck your halls, your landscape or for wildlife. Enjoy and have a holly, jolly holiday.


About the Author: Rose Rundell

Rose Rundell joined the federation staff in 2003. She does a little bit of everything around here and is likely the voice on the other end of the phone when you call our office. An avid gardener who lives in Morehead City, she also buys the plants and composes fact sheets for federation’s annual Native Plant Festival. Originally from Ohio, she moved to the area from Charleston, S.C. Environmental issues have always been one of her interests and are what brought her to the federation.