American Holly

This is a repost from October 2012. All the American Holly transplanted into the woods survived the winter of 2012-2013 and added new leaves and a bit of height during the summer of 2013. Though one American Holly ended up with a broken main stalk from the weight from the three feet of snow that covered my Connecticut gardens in February 2013, it too shows signs of recovery.

For years I’ve pined to plant American holly (Ilex opaca)  on my Connecticut (zone 6) property, vowing each will be the year I cough up the substantial cash needed to purchase a 4-5 foot specimen. Each year other needs upstage my need  but his spring, while pondering when and where to make my purchase, I came upon an American holly seedling while gardening at a client’s property. At about a foot tall, it peeked out from behind a boxwood hedge, searching for the light. My immediate reaction was I Can Grow That! … and, if successful, can use my experiment to urge others You Can Grow That! too.

After receiving permission, I carefully dug out the seedling to nurse in a pot at home. To my delight I found another, smaller seedling, then another, then another. Over the course of my spring clean-up at this property I dug up seven American holly seedlings (my client was not interested in having me transplant them elsewhere on the property).

The seedlings, between 6 and 12 inches tall, each found a new home in a clay or plastic pot, with roots surrounded by a blend of native soil and compost. They lived in a northwestern exposure from May through August (bright light, late afternoon sun) to give roots a chance to develop. Here they are in September, after living in pots since May.

Ilex Opaca In Pots 9 2012 Thumb

Ilex Opaca Potted 9 2012 Thumb

Then I moved them to the brighter southwestern exposure of my front porch until just this week. All seven survived and put out new growth. The tallest are now about 18-24 inches tall. All developed healthy roots and all but two have been planted somewhere on my property. I planted three in partial shade at the woodland edge or in a woodland clearing. They will receive bright light once leaves fall from surrounding deciduous trees and bright shade when surrounding trees are in full leaf.


The two larger shrubs are in a sunnier location where I hope they will eventually provide year-round screening from adjacent properties. I might try to keep the two still potted on my southwest-facing covered porch alive over the winter by insulating the pots and moving them next to the house where they will still get great light.

American hollies should be planted in a location that affords them room to slowly grow into their natural pyramidal form and mature height. They can eventually reach 50 feet.


Ilex opaca is native to Connecticut. The Connecticut College Arboretum has a wonderful collection (pictured above and below) of young and mature specimen.


They are one holly browsing deer tend to avoid. My area of Connecticut is heavily browsed by deer, as is my property. I’ve yet to see evidence of deer browsing on Ilex opaca planted on nearby properties and, so far, deer have not touched the Ilex opaca seedlings, though they browsed adjacent plants. Still, I’ve screened the largest of my transplants just in case local deer develop a taste for young transplants over the winter.


Usually, when searching for favored plants, we head to the local garden center. Yet, sometimes what we seek is right under our nose, growing where unwanted or inappropriate, but still growing. Such finds should be celebrated, be given a chance to live on in a more favored location. Such finds scream out You Can Grow That! … and with a bit of effort and desire, you can.

I look forward to enjoying my American holly shrubs in years to come. Even if my transplants all turn out to be males and don’t provide bright red berries, birds will still flock to these shrubs/trees for cover and I will enjoy the contrast of the holly’s dark green leaves against newly fallen snow.

You Can Grow That! is a blog meme seeded by C.L. Fornari at Whole Life Gardening, to remind everyone that gardening is good for people. It enriches our senses, our food, our health, fosters friendship and increases ones appreciation of nature. C.L. enlists the garden-blogging world to spread this news.  Read You Can Grow That! posts at the You Can Grow That! website.

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2 comments for “American Holly

  1. October 13, 2013 at 9:06 am

    What a forest of ilex opaca you are growing! I love seeing these little found seedlings growing under your care. I was so impressed with the CT College holly specimens (and others I have seen) that I absolutely had to plant one, but I took the opposite approach and had a large 7 foot tall holly installed last year. It’s doing well. I also planted a seedling about the size of yours that I knew was a male, in order to pollinate the installed female for berries.

    You won’t know for a while whether you have male or female seedlings. Here’s a good resource to tell holly gender by the flowers, although it isn’t specifically about I. opaca.

    Can’t wait to see your found treasures grow into beautiful trees!!

  2. December 20, 2013 at 10:39 am

    I too appreciate the thrill of a free garden find. Nothing like discovering an unwanted plant in another garden that is perfect for your garden. Or having a friend offer you free plant clippings or seedlings 🙂

    American holly is prevalent here in MS. Although I don’t think deer browse the leaves much (palatability is considered low), they will eat the berries. It’s a great source of winter food and cover for birds too. And the red berries are a nice addition to the landscape in winter. I planted them as a privacy barrier and they work very well.

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