American Holly – Ilex opaca

illustration of American holly tree

With its thick, lustrous, dark-green foliage and contrasting bright-red fruits, the American holly is prized for Christmas decorations, most commonly mistletoe, and is widely cultivated as an ornamental. Fourteen species of Ilex are native to the United States, and six are southern trees. Only the American holly, however, can be classed as a timber tree of commercial importance.

This evergreen is recognized by the coarse stiff spines on the margins and tips of the leaves, and has short, slender, somewhat contorted branches that form a pyramidal crown. It is a small or medium-sized tree, commonly 30’ to 50’ in height and 1’ to 2’ in diameter. Bark is gray, thin, roughened by small wartlike lumps, and often used for such things as carvings and cabinetwork. Fruit is a spherical bright red drupe, persistent through the winter, and although slightly toxic to humans, is important to wildlife. It is abundant in the southeast, typically growing as an understory tree and frequently found in sandy soils near the coast.