A modern reference to temperate woody plants, including updated content from this site and much new material, can be found at Trees and Shrubs Online.

Ilex aquifolium L.

Common Holly

Modern name

Ilex aquifolium L.

An evergreen tree up to 80 ft high, of very leafy, much-branched habit, forming naturally a dense pyramidal mass; branchlets often clothed more or less with minute dark down. Leaves glossy dark green, 1 to 3 in. long, 34 to 212 in. wide, very variable in size, outline, and toothing. Ordinary seed-raised young trees have very wavy leaves with large, triangular, outstanding teeth 12 in. long; but as they increase in height the leaves of the upper branches become less spiny, until finally the tops of good-sized trees will be found almost wholly furnished with quite entire leaves. Flowers small, dull white, short-stalked, fragrant; produced during May and June, clustered in the leaf-axils. Berries round, red, 14 in. diameter, containing two to four nutlets. The common holly may be either male, female, or bisexual.

Native of Europe (including Britain, where it is found wild in all parts except the north-east of Scotland) and W. Asia. The common holly is on the whole the most useful of evergreen trees and shrubs. For providing shelter nothing else equals it, because of its habit of keeping dense near the ground; and during the dark months a holly tree well laden with its bright red fruit is one of the handsomest and most cheerful objects our winter landscape provides. It makes the best of all evergreen hedges.

The holly does not transplant well, and unless it be removed with a considerable amount of soil attached to its roots, this operation can only be done safely either about the end of September or in May, when root-activity has commenced. If the roots have been injured in transplanting, it is a good plan to reduce proportionately the top growth by as much as one-half (see chapter on Transplanting in Vol. I). The common holly should be raised from seed. Being slow of germination it is advisable, as with Crataegus, to mix the berries with sand or fine earth in a heap, which should be exposed for a year to all weathers and turned occasionally. This rots the outer covering and allows the two to four nuts or seeds each fruit contains to separate. They arc then sown (soil and seed together) shallowly. The varieties do not come true from seed, and have to be propagated by cuttings or by grafting. Cuttings are best made of thin side twigs about 4 in. long, with a heel attached, and placed in mild heat. They will also take root under a handlight out-of-doors, but are slower. Grafting is done in spring on the seedlings of the type.

Cultivated, as it has been, for hundreds of years in Britain, the common holly has sported into an enormous number of varieties, most of them hand­some, some curious, and a few worthless. An unfortunate practice, started long ago when they were few in number, has obtained of giving them cumbersome Latin names when colloquial ones would have served quite as well. In the 18th century many variegated hollies were grown under such pleasant names as Eale’s Holly, The British Holly, Glory of the East Holly, Fine Phyllis Holly, Painted Lady Holly. These and many other sorts were described shortly by Miller in the early editions of his Dictionary. Most were still in the trade later in the 18th century but the old names were discarded when Latin epithets became the fashion.

The most authoritative work on holly cultivars is: ‘The Common Holly and its Varieties’ by Thomas Moore, published in fourteen parts in Gardeners’ Chronicle, 1874-6. Dallimore’s treatment in Holly, Yew and Box (1908) is, with acknowledgement, largely based on Moore’s work. The following selection is mainly confined to varieties in commerce or represented in the Kew collection, but many others, not treated, may still be found in old collections.

It may be remarked that all variegated hollies whose variegation is in the centre of the leaf have a strong tendency to ‘run out’, that is, to revert to the green sorts from which they originally sprang, and it is necessary to cut out the green twigs as they appear. The marginally variegated ones do not show such a tendency.

cv. ‘Amber’. – Berries bronzy yellow. Raised by Messrs Hillier.

cv. ‘Angustifolia’. – It is clear from Moore’s account that the name I. a. angustifolia was in use for three similar hollies, all of narrow habit. The one he considered to be the true variety has lanceolate leaves 112 in. long, 12 in. wide, with a longish entire point and five to seven narrow, rather weak spines lying in the plane of the leaf. In ‘Myrtifolia’ the spines are broader and the apex less elongated, while in ‘Serratifolia’ the apex is elongated as in ‘Angustifolia’ but the blade concavely folded and the spines divaricating. But all three hollies were sent out as I. a. angustifolia by one nurseryman or another.

cv. ‘Argentea Longifolia’. – Young wood purplish. Leaves elliptic or elliptic-ovate, 212 to 3 in. long, strongly armed, with an irregular mostly rather narrow band of creamy white. In the Kew collection.

cv. ‘Argentea Marginata’. – Young wood green. Leaves broadly ovate, up to 3 in. long, 2 in. wide, dark green in the centre, with a silver edge. Female. Common in cultivation.

cv. ‘Argentea Medio-picta’. Silver Milkmaid Holly. – Young bark green. Leaves ovate, cuneate at base, up to 2 in. long, margins very wavy and strongly toothed, blades dark green with a blotch of creamy white which is often confined to the base of the leaf. Apt to revert. Moore described two other white-blotched hollies, both differing from this in having entire or few-spined leaves. They were ‘Argentea Picta’ and ‘LACTEA Picta’, the latter characterised by reddish-brown young wood.

cv. ‘Argentea Pendula’. Perry’s Weeping. – Branches pendulous; young stems purplish. Leaves 212 to 3 in. long, green mottled with grey-green at the centre, with a broad margin of creamy white. Female. Moore also described ‘Perryana Major’, in which the principal branches were erect, the sprays pendulous.

cv. ‘Argentea Regina’. See ‘Silver Queen’.

cv ‘Aurea Marginata’. – The designation aurea marginata or marginata aurea has probably been used for many hollies with gold-edged leaves. The one described by Moore had leaves up to 3 in. long, stoutly and unevenly spined, with a narrow edge of gold best developed near the tips. It was female, but not free fruiting, and inferior to ‘Golden Queen’ (q.v.).

cv. ‘Aurea Marginata Ovata’. – Leaves roundish ovate, with large regular spines and a broad edge of pale yellow.

cv. ‘Aurea Medio-picta’. Golden Milkmaid. – The holly described by Moore under this name had small leaves with a central blotch of yellow, strongly developed spines and a very pronounced spiny tip. It was sold by the Knap Hill nurseries as ‘Gold Milkmaid’ and by others as I. a. aurea picta. A very similar one, included in ‘Aurea Medio-picta’ by Dallimore, was sold by the Handsworth nurseries of Fisher and Holmes. In ‘Aurea Picta Latifolia’ the leaves were broadly ovate and the spines mostly confined to the upper half of the leaf. But there are numerous other hollies with gold-blotched leaves, usually known as Golden Milkmaid hollies, but without distinctive names.

cv. ‘Aurea Pendula’. – A pendulous variety with purple bark, the dark green centre of the leaf surrounded by a margin of gold.

cv. ‘Aurea Regina’. See ‘Golden Queen’.

f. bacciflava (West.) Rehd. I. a. fructu-luteo Dallim. – Fruits yellow.

var. balearica (Desf.) Loes. I. balearica Desf. – The Balearic or Minorca holly, as it is called, is said to differ from the common holly only in having plane, entire or sparsely toothed leaves. The name I. a. balearica was, however, used in gardens in Loudon’s time and later for a female holly, propagated by grafting, which had yellowish green, rather thick leaves, the margins sparsely spine-toothed, not undulate but with the blade rather obliquely concave above and with the reticulations prominent beneath. Loesener accepted this holly as belonging to var. balearica, while remarking on its reticulated leaves. This holly was used in breeding the hybrid called ‘Princeps’ (see under I. altaclarensis ‘Wilsonii’) and similarly shaped leaves occur in other of the hybrids. The name I. a. balearica has also been used for hollies which are not the same as the old balearica and may be hybrids of the Altaclarensis group.

var. chinensis Loes. I. centrochinensis Hu – This variety, perhaps better treated as a species, differs from the European holly in having the branches of the male inflorescences one-flowered instead of three-flowered, in the very short fruit-stalks, and in the differently sculptured nutlets. It has a local distribution on the borders between Hupeh and Szechwan and was described from a specimen collected by Henry near the Ichang Gorge. Said to have been introduced by Wilson in 1901.

cv. ‘Ciliata’. – Leaves ovate to lanceolate, 112 to 2 in. long, with long, slender rather soft spines. Some leaves entire. Of rather narrowly pyramidal habit (I. aquifolium pyramidalis Nichols.).

cv. ‘Ciliata Major’. – Leaves ovate-elliptic with slender spines pointing forward in the plane of the leaf; some leaves entire. Female.

cv. ‘Crassifolia’. Leather-leaf Holly. – An extraordinary variety, with thick, purple young branches. Leaves 112 to 2 in. long, 34 to 78 in. wide, very thick and leathery, the triangular spines 16 to 14 in. long. It has no beauty, but is remarkably curious. Female.

cv. ‘Crispa’. – Bark purple. Leaves spirally twisted and contorted, some having several spines, but mostly with few or none. One of the least ornamental. ‘Crispa Picta’ is a form of it, blotched with yellow in the centre. Male.

cv. ‘Donningtonensis’. – An elegant variety with purple bark, glossy, dark purplish green narrow-oblong leaves, with a lance-shaped apex, 2 in. long, 12 to 34 in. wide, with a few large spines or none. Male.

cv. ‘Elegantissima’. – Leaves oblong or elliptic, 2 to 212 in. long, with divaricate spines. Margins creamy white; centre grey-green and dark green. Young wood green. Also known as I. a. argentea marginata elegantissima.

cv. ‘Ferox’. Hedgehog Holly. – Bark purple. Leaves small, and besides having the usual marginal spines, armed with curious clusters or bands of them on the surface. Male. ‘Ferox Argentea’ is similar, but the spines and margin are white. ‘Ferox Aurea’, leaves with the spines and margin green, the centre yellow.

cv. ‘Fisheri’. – Leaves dark green, leathery, up to 4 in. long and 234 in. wide, formidably armed with large spines. Male. Raised by the Handsworth nurseries.

cv. ‘Flavescens’. Moonlight Holly. – Leaves as in the common holly, but suffused with yellow, especially when young. ‘Aurantiaca’, also known as the bronze holly, is similar but with the leaves flushed golden bronze.

cv. ‘Golden Queen’. – This holly, also known as ‘Aurea Regina’, is the commonest of the golden-margined sorts. Young wood green. Leaves broad-ovate, up to 312 in. long and 2 in. wide, strongly spined, with a regular margin of gold; some leaves golden in one half or completely so. Male. In ‘Aurea Regina Nigra’ the young wood is purple and the golden margin narrower. ‘Aurea Marginata Latifolia’ is similar to this. Both these varieties are female.

cv. ‘Grandis’. – Leaves up to 3 by 2 in., strongly spined but fairly flat, with a broad margin of creamy white; centre of leaf green splashed grey-green. On some leaves the ends are mainly cream and grey. Young wood blackish purple. A very handsome holly.

cv. ‘Handsworthensis’. – Leaves ovate, about 112 in. long and half as ‘wide, with large regular forward-pointing spines, margin slightly undulate. Of compact habit.

cv. ‘Handsworth New Silver’. – One of the best of the white-margined hollies. Bark purple. Leaves elliptic-oblong, up to 312 in. long, very dark green, the margin clear white, armed with large spines mostly lying in the plane of the leaf. Female.

cv. ‘Hastata’. – A curious green-leaved variety of no beauty. Bark purple. Leaves 12 to 112 in. long, narrow, the basal part armed with disproportionately large spines. Loesener named it I. aq. var. kewensis in his monograph on Ilex.

f. heterophylla (Ait.) Loes. – Leaves entire or sparsely toothed. There are several clones of this nature, of both sexes. A free-fruiting selection has i/been named ‘Pyramidalis’.

cv. ‘J. C. Van Tol’. – Leaves dark, rather dull green, oblong-ovate or oblong-elliptic, 134 to 214 in. long, sparsely toothed or entire, slightly bullate owing to the impressing of the lateral veins. Fruits large, bright red, freely borne. Raised in Holland at the end of the last century and often known as I. a. polycarpa laevigata. In ‘Golden Van Tol’ the leaves are margined with yellow; it is a sport from the normal green form.

cv. ‘Latispina’. – Bark purple. Leaves green, ovate, 2 to 3 in. long, marked by a long, slender, deflexed point, and one or more irregularly placed, slender spines on the margin, 14 to 34 in. long; very distinct.

cv. ‘Laurifolia’. – A tall-growing sort with dark, glossy leaves which are mostly unarmed but occasionally with a few spines, 2 to 3 in. long and 1 to 112 in. wide. Male. In ‘Laurifolia Aurea’ the leaves are similar, but edged with yellow.

cv. ‘Lichtenthalii’. – Leaves narrow-oblong, almost three times as long as wide, dark glossy green but pale green along the midrib and margins.

cv. ‘Madame Briot’. – A continental variety already in commerce in Britain in the 1870s. Young stems purple. Leaves narrow-ovate, up to 3 in. long, 112 in. wide, strongly armed, with a margin of gold and a centre mottled with gold and light green. Female.

cv. ‘Monstrosa’. – Resembling ‘Latispina’, with the apex and spines of the same character, but with more of the latter – often four or five down each side.

cv. ‘Muricata’. – Leaves ovate or oblong-ovate, up to 212 in. long, not much undulated, margined with a rather bilious shade of yellowish green.

cv. ‘Myrtifolia’. – Leaves small, mostly about 112 in. long by 12 to 58 in. wide, well armed with slender spines mostly lying in the plane of the leaf; some leaves larger and less spiny. Male. ‘Myrtifolia Aurea’ has similar leaves, but with a fairly well-marked margin of gold; its young bark is purple. In Myrtifolia Aureomaculata’ the leaves have an irregular central variegation of yellow; young bark purple.

cv. ‘Ovata’. – A very distinct and pleasing sort; bark purple. Leaves especially thick and leathery, dark glossy green, 112 to 212 in. long, ovate, very regularly armed on the margin with short outstanding spines. Male. There is an attractive variant of this – ‘Ovata Aurea’ – whose leaves are narrowly margined with gold.

f. pendula (Loud.) Rehd. – The pendulous holly described by Loudon in 1842 was found in a garden in Derby and propagated by William Barron, who had a nursery at Elvaston Castle. But other pendulous trees have been recorded. The pendulous green-leaved hollies at Kew are female and make dense specimens of conical outline.

cv. ‘Pyramidalis’. See under f. heterophylla.

cv. ‘Recurva’. – A dwarf kind with small, very spiny leaves, dark green, ovate, 1 to 134in. long, the midrib much decurved, the blade also twisted. Male.

cv. ‘Scotica’. – A very distinct sort, with lustrous deep green oval leaves up to 3 in. long, remarkable for the entire absence of marginal spines; the apex is sometimes spine-tipped, usually blunt. Female. In ‘Scotica Aurea’ the leaves are margined with gold. ‘Scotica Aureopicta’, a sport raised by Paul of Cheshunt, has a central blotch of yellow.

cv. ‘Silver Queen’. – Young wood purplish, the variegation clear and broad. Male. Also known as ‘Argentea Regina’.

cv. ‘Smithii’. – Of the same type as ‘Donningtonensis’, but without the intense purple bark and purple tinge in the leaves of that variety. Male.

cv. ‘Watererana’. – A compact kind, usually wider than high when young but at length developing a leader and becoming of conical habit, with a broad base. Leaves often quite without marginal spines or with only a few, dark green with a rich yellow border. Male. There is a fine example at Kew near the Stone Pine, and another in the Knap Hill nursery, where it was raised.

From the Supplement (Vol. V)

For cultivars with yellow or orange-coloured berries, see the article by Susyn Andrews in The Garden (Journ. R.H.S.), Vol. 110, pp. 518-22 (1985).

cv. ‘Argentea Medio-picta’. – This clone is male.

var. balearica – Susyn Andrews has pointed out in her article in the Kew Bulletin, cited under I. perado below, that variants resembling the Balearic holly occur throughout the Mediterranean region and do not merit separate taxonomic status.

var. chinensis – Although certainly allied to I. aquifolium, this should rank as a distinct species – I centrochinensis S. Y. Hu. So far as is known, it is not at present in cultivation. See further in this supplement under I. corallina.

cv. ‘Ferox Argentea’. – This has attained a height of 22 ft and a slightly wider breadth in Mr E. F. Allen’s garden in Suffolk (The Garden (Journ. R.H.S.), Vol. 103, p. 77 (1978)).

cv. ‘Laurifolia’. – According to Elwes and Henry, this is male, but it is uncertain whether all the trees answering to Loudon’s original description (1838) belong to the same clone. Some specimens belonging here are:

Elvetham Hall, Hants, 50 × 412 ft (1977); Westonbirt, Glos., 66 × 334 + 312 ft (1979); Clumber Park, Notts., 66 × 414 + 414 ft (1979).

cv. ‘Lichtenthalii’. – There is an old specimen of this rare cultivar at Wakehurst Place, Sussex.

† I. colchica Poyark. – Of recent introduction, this ally of the common holly is a shrub, commonly forming the undergrowth in silver fir or beech forest, and ranging from the Caucasus westward through northern Anatolia to European Turkey and bordering Bulgaria. It differs from the common holly in a number of characters, notably in its not or only slightly undulated leaves or shorter more deeply grooved petioles and with shorter more forward-pointing spines, the terminal one straight and slender.

† I. spinigera (Loes.) Loes. I. aquifolium var. caspia f. spinigera Loes.; I. hyrcana Poyark. – Another ally of I. aquifolium, often forming dense thickets only 3 to 4 ft high in the ‘Hyrcanian’ forests of northern Iran and bordering Russia (Talysch), south of the Caspian, to which it is endemic. The leaves are strongly undulated as in the common holly but on the average smaller and with fewer, impressed pairs of lateral veins. It was introduced by Mrs Ala and Roy Lancaster in 1972 (Journ. R.H.S., Vol. 99, p. 106 (1974)) and again by Fliegner and Simmons for Kew in 1977.

Both these species are discussed by T. R. Dudley in the Mitteilungen of the German Dendrological Society (Mitt. Deutsch. Dendr. Ges.), No. 72, pp. 97-128 (1981), in English.



Other species in the genus