Holly – Ilex aquifolium – Ilex aquifolium – Garden plants – Holly – Ilex aquifolium – Shrubs

see also: Cultivating Holly – Ilex aquifolium

Holly belongs to the Aquifoliaceae family, which includes more than 400 species, evergreen and deciduous, almost all of which are represented by the genus Ilex aquifolium. Trees and shrubs generally have alternate leaves, with small flowers, white or pink, on separate plants. Female individuals, preferred in the gardens, originate in autumn yellow, red, orange or black berries.

They are common plants in green areas both as isolated specimens and for the realization of hedges.

They grow extremely slowly and therefore require very little care. They also have the undoubted advantage of being (almost all) evergreen and make the garden pleasant even during the coldest months. Both the glossy dark green or variegated leaves and the abundant berries are very appreciated. Precisely for this characteristic the holly is in many countries associated with the Christmas holidays and is widely used to decorate houses during this period.

Large shrub or small tree, tall up to 8-10 metres, growing quite slowly, native to Europe and Asia; it has an erect posture and develops a thick oval or pyramidal foliage, sometimes even messy. The evergreen foliage is bright green and oval in shape; it is leathery and waxy, the young leaves have a margin with sharp thorns, while the older leaves have an entire margin without thorns.

It is a dioecious plant, the feminine specimens produce small white flowers, with four petals, followed, in summer-autumn, by small red berries, which remain on the plant also during the whole year. A shrub much appreciated all over Europe, it is particularly utilized for the Christmas decorations. There are particularly decorative varieties, with brown-purple foliage, or variegated of white or yellow.

Family and gender

  Aquifoliaceae, gen.


Type of plant

 Tree or shrub, usually up to 4 m high


 Half shadow-shadow, but also sunshine in the North


 Very rustic, up to -15°C


 Not demanding, sub-acid


 Once a year with granular fertilizer


 Only in the first two years


 Dark green leaves, whether or not variegated, red, orange, yellow or black berries


Holly plant

Agrifoglio pianta Holly is a rather slow growing shrub that can reach a height of 4 to 6 metres in adulthood. However, there are also centuries-old specimens that are even more than 18 metres high. They are rather long-lived plants as they can live up to 300 years.

In the common form (Ilex aquifolium) the leaves are variable, from elliptic to ovate, 10 cm long and 5 cm broad with a thorny apex, from young in the lower part of the plant with a very thorny margin, from adult with an almost thornless margin, dark green and glossy in the upper page. The bark is pale grey and smooth. The flowers are small, white, pinkish or purple, perfumed, in clusters at the axil of the leaves, on separate plants, by late spring.

The fruits are red berries of about 1 cm in diameter.

The wood is hard and homogeneous, rather heavy, greyish-white in colour that darkens with age. It is used for valuable artefacts.

It is native to Western Asia and Europe, in particular they come from wooded habitats where they grow together with beeches and oaks.

Given its wide use in the garden, there are many cultivars available.

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  • Agrifoglio Holly is a sapling or a large evergreen shrub, which can reach ten meters in height, originating in central and southern Europe and part of Asia, in fact in nature is more difficult to find than a tree or shrub.

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ilex aquifolium argentea marginata It prefers semi-shaded positions; in the places with cool climate, they are cultivated also in full sun, whilst in the areas with very hot summers, they are placed in a particularly shaded place; they are cultivated also in container.

These are shrubs that grow naturally in the undergrowth. The ideal position is therefore the half-shade.

We must bear in mind, however, that they are very resistant. Throughout the North they will rarely have problems even in more exposed positions. Let us instead pay more attention to the Centre-South. Variegated cultivars are more sensitive to the sun and it is therefore important to evaluate their positioning more carefully.


ilex aquilegifolium silver queen can withstand short periods of drought without any problems, although it is advisable to water sporadically during the summer period; let’s avoid soaking the soil too much or leaving it dry for too many consecutive days. In the spring, spread slow release granular fertilizer at the foot of the plant.

The ilex aquifolium adults rarely need human intervention. To facilitate the growth and establishment of young people, however, it is good to irrigate at least once a month during the first two years. In summer, especially in the Centre-South and on the Coasts, it can be of considerable benefit to vaporize the foliage during the hottest hours of the day.

If we live in very snowy areas we must avoid that the weight can break or bend the branches. We therefore often intervene to remove the thick coulters, shaking the branches slightly.


agrifoglio mme briot The holly is grown in slightly acidic soils, adapting to any terrain, although they do not like clay and excessively basic soils. A compound suitable for the cultivation of holly is prepared by mixing peat with soft soil, enriched with mature organic fertilizer.

These plants are not very demanding, but generally prefer a light, deep and possibly acidic or subacid soil. Usually the presence of limestone is not a problem. The biggest drawbacks can come from an excessively compact and heavy substrate. This can lead to waterlogging and rottenness of the underground system. In this case, when planting, it is advisable to prepare a rather thick draining layer and to incorporate a good quantity of manure.


it propagates by woody cutting in autumn or semi-woody in summer; in spring the small black seeds are sown, taking them from the fresh fruits.

Pests and diseases

ilex aquifolium fears the development of cochineal and rust.


Ilex aquifolium have rather sensitive roots and transplantation is a very delicate moment for them. It is therefore better to prefer the specimens in pots, avoiding those with a very narrow bread of earth or even bare root.

The best time for this operation is undoubtedly autumn. In this way the plant will have all the cold season to adapt to the new location and possibly begin to explore with the roots the surrounding soil. However, it is also possible to proceed in spring (especially for potted plants), while summer must be avoided.

A wide, deep hole should be opened at least two weeks before planting so that the soil can breathe and become active again.

At the time of planting we will create a thick draining layer with gravel, we will position the plant so that the collar is a few inches above the surface. Let’s fill it with soil mixed with soil improver if necessary. Let’s irrigate abundantly.


Concimazione agrifoglio The demand for fertilizer is minimal, also due to their slow growth. We can administer two handfuls of slow release granular fertilizer each year, making sure that it is not excessively rich in nitrogen.

To improve the texture of the soil is always a good practice, before winter, cover the foot with a good amount of mature manure floured, to be buried then with light hoeing at the arrival of summer.


Ilex is very rustic. It can bear temperatures as low as -15 degrees Celsius, even if kept for a long time.

Consequently, it can be planted outside with tranquility throughout our country with the exception, perhaps, of the Alpine areas above 1200 meters above sea level.

Growth and pruning

agrifoglio Hollies can stand pruning very well. In fact, they are used for hedges, including formal ones, and for topiary art. If pruning is frequent, in a few years we will be able to obtain a very thick specimen and to give it the shape we prefer.

Usually, we intervene at the end of the winter, in order to stimulate the resumption and the vegetative growth. In any case, it is possible to intervene at any time, especially with the aim of maintaining the shape.

However, if we want abundant berries during the winter season, we must avoid intervening from mid spring onwards. In fact, we would risk cutting the flowers or fruits when they are ripening.

Growth is rather slow and is on average 15-20 cm per year.

To create beautiful hedges and have them compact within a few years it will be good to distance the subjects of about one meter. If, on the other hand, we want a more natural look, i.e. a free hedge, we can reach up to 3 metres between one plant and another.

Dioecious plant

In most ilexes, male and female flowers are found on separate plants.

Generally you buy female individuals to enjoy the berries.

For the flowers to be pollinated, however, it is necessary to have a male in the vicinity. One for every five females is sufficient.

Some nurserymen have overcome this problem by grafting a male branch onto a female plant.

However, there are also some hermaphrodite cultivars.

Pests and diseases

Holly generally has few enemies. Rare attacks of cochineal or aphids may occur, but rarely it is the case to intervene.

Variety Common holly

ilex aquifolium Crisp aurea picta has thick leaves, sometimes wavy, without thorns, except at the apex. They have a central yellow-green spot.

Argentea marginata has pink leaves when young, then white margins with green branches and red berries.

Bacchiflava brings yellow berries and thorny leaves

Ferox also known as porcupine holly, only male. The leaves have spines on the top page.

Silvery Ferox also only male, has leaves with top page with spines and yellow-cream margin

Handsworth New Silver it has purple branches, leaves bordered with white and small red berries

Flavescens also known as “moonlight” are yellow the small and the central ribs. The margin of the leaves can also be smooth

J.C. Van Tol both male and female plants. It has thick dark green leaves, shiny and smooth in the upper page. They are almost completely free of thorns.

Madame Briot The leaves of this female form are wide and have a dark yellow margin. It produces many scarlet berries.

Pyramidalis fructu luteo has oval leaves, dark green and shiny, often without thorns. It has large and abundant yellow berries

Silver Milkmaid It has dark green leaves with a cream-white spot in the middle and abundant red berries.

Silver Queen male It has wide, white leaves along the margin, orange and pale pink when young. The branches are an intense purple.

Holly – Ilex aquifolium: Other varieties of holly

Highclere Holly is a hybrid between a common holly and the Ilex perado, a native of the Azores. It has more rounded leaves. There are many cultivars and is very stylized in the gardens: Wilsonii, Lawsoniana, Golden King, Camellifolia, Belgica aurea

Ilex x Koehneana has elliptical to oblong leaves, very thorny, bronze when young and then shiny green. The branches are stained with violet. It is a hybrid obtained in Florence between the Aquifolium and the tarajo.

Holly tarajo from eastern China and Japan. It has oblong leaves, very thick and with coarse and not thorny notches, olive green as well as branches. It is the only species of holly that lives spontaneously in temperate zones.

American holly the upper page of the leaves is smooth and opaque. It lives near the coasts, in sandy soils.

Ilex peduncolosa, native to China, Japan and Taiwan, lives in forests and woods. It has ovate to elliptical leaves, not toothing. The margin becomes bronze with time.

Purple holly originating in China and Japan has elliptical-lanceolate, bronze leaves when young.

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