American Holly – Ilex opaca 'Miss Helen'

Miss Helen American Holly – Ilex opaca 'Miss Helen'
Family Aquifoliaceae – Holly & Winterberry
Miss Helen is an outstanding, cold-hardy American Holly used in ornamental plantings.
When the Pilgrims landed the week before Christmas in 1620 on the coast of what is now Massachusetts, the evergreen, prickly leaves and red berries of American holly reminded them of the English holly (Ilex aquifolium). The use of Holly as a symbolic winter decoration goes back to the Celtic peoples of Northern Europe, who decorated their homes with it during the time of the winter solstice.

Since the settling of North America, American holly has become one of the most valuable and popular trees in the Eastern United States, known  for its evergreen foliage and bright-red berries. American holly is the hardiest known broadleaf evergreen tree, with cultivars naturalized in Ohio down to -20 degrees F, and native populations in the mountains of West Virginia where the average low temperature is -10 degrees. Holly grows in almost any soil, from sandy Atlantic beaches to thin mountain soils, to dry gravelly soils inland. However, the largest holly trees are found in the rich bottom lands and swamps of the coastal plain in New Jersey [1].

American holly, English holly (Ilex aquifolium),  and winterberry (I. verticillata) are all species having male and female flowers borne on separate plants (dioecious). Pollen transfer from a male to a female plant is known as cross-pollination, usually accomplished by insects including bees, wasps, ants, yellowjackets, and night-flying moths. If a holly plant fails to produce berries, it is either a male, or an unfertilized female plant. To insure good berry production, it is suggested at least one male plant for every three females be planted within 200 feet.

Commercial holly production often relies on rented honeybees for the cross-pollination required for the female plants to produce fruit. The current crisis in the beekeeping world due to colony collapse disorder may put a dent in holly availability.

Because of a good taproot and a prolific lateral root system, young hollies can be transplanted without much difficulty. Transplanting should be done during the dormant season, usually November through March. Small plants may be dug bare-rooted if roots are kept moist, but larger plants should be balled and burlapped. When wild hollies are transplanted from the woods, tops should be severely pruned and most of the remaining leaves removed. Small trees should be allowed to flower before transplanting to ensure the selection of fruit-bearing individuals.

In years past, the indiscriminate harvesting of wild holly for Christmas decorations left many plants mutilated or dead.  Before laws were passed in Maryland and Delaware to protect the holly, there was a roadside market for holly stolen from trees that did not belong to the sellers[1].


  1. H.E. Grelen, USDA Forest Service Silvics manual Vol 2, 'Ilex opaca Ait. American Holly.'
  2. Holly Society of America Inc., 'Holly Cultivar Registrations'
Family Aquifoliaceae – Holly & Winterberry
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