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holly plant with berries, snow, and ice drops

All About Holly

December 14, 2023

The American Holly does more than brighten up our winter woods with their characteristic red drupes. Here’s a primer on this iconic plant.

How to Identify American Holly

The American Holly (Ilex opaca) grows as far south as Florida, but it’s also found in a few places in Massachusetts. To spot one, search for these characteristics:

  • Small size—in the Northeast, it usually grows only 20-40 feet tall, though in balmy southern climes it can reach up to 100 feet
  • Greenish-grey bark
  • Spiny, leathery leaves that are shiny on top and pale green below
  • Greenish flowers in early spring
  • Often found in sandy coastal forests

Decorative Red "Berries"

What about those characteristic red berries? They’re not really berries—botanists call them “drupes,” which means fruit that has flesh surrounding a hard central pit that forms from a flower’s ovary wall. Other drupes include peaches, cherries, and olives.

If you see a holly with fruit, you know it’s a female plant. You also know that there must be a male plant nearby. Only females make fruit, but they need the pollen of a male to get started. American hollies flower in late spring, and pollinators like bees and moths carry pollen from male trees to female trees.

Though holly fruit is toxic to people, it’s an important winter food source for birds and other wildlife.

Saving the American Holly

The American Holly was once in danger of disappearing in Massachusetts. People were cutting too many holly boughs for decoration, and they were also clearing forests in sandy coastal areas to build houses.

Enter the “holly man,” Wilfrid Wheeler. In the 1930s, Wheeler was worried that hollies might disappear from the Cape, so he began to grow the plants on his property, Ashumet Farm in Falmouth. He also encouraged people to plant hollies on public land.

Wheeler’s farm later became Mass Audubon’s Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary. His legacy lives on: the wildlife sanctuary is home to some 1,000 holly trees of 65 varieties.

Visit Ashumet Holly