Holly - Ilex aquifolium

Holly - Ilex aquifolium

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The holly belongs to the family of the Aquifoliaceae which includes more than 400 species, evergreen and deciduous, whose almost all is represented precisely by the genus Ilex aquifolium. Trees and shrubs generally have alternate leaves, with small flowers, white or pink, on separate plants. Feminine individuals, preferred in gardens, originate in autumn yellow, red, orange or black berries.
They are common plants in green areas both as isolated specimens and for the construction of hedges. They have extremely slow growth and therefore require very little care. They also have the undoubted merit of being (almost all) evergreens and making the garden pleasant even during the coldest months. Both dark green or variegated glossy leaves and abundant berries are highly appreciated. Because of this characteristic the holly comes in many countries associated with the Christmas festivities and is widely used to decorate the houses during this period.
Large shrub or small tree, up to 8-10 meters tall, fairly slow growing, originating in Europe and Asia; it has an erect habit, and develops a thick crown of oval or pyramidal shape, sometimes even disordered. The evergreen foliage is bright green and oval in shape; It is leathery and waxy, the young leaves have edges with sharp spines, while the older leaves have entire margins and no thorns. It is a dioecious plant, the female specimens produce small white flowers, with four petals, followed in summer-autumn, by small red berries, which remain on the plant even throughout the year. Very popular shrub throughout Europe, it is particularly used for Christmas decorations. There are particularly decorative varieties, with brown-violet foliage, or variegated white or yellow.

Family and gender
Aquifoliaceae, gen. Ilex
Type of plant Tree or shrub, generally up to 4 meters high
Exposure Half shade-shadow, but also sun in the North
Rustic Very rustic, up to -15 ° C
Ground Not demanding, subacid
Composting Once a year with granular fertilizer
Irrigation Only in the first two years
colors Dark green leaves, also variegated, red, orange, yellow or black berries

Holly plant

The holly is a rather slow-growing shrub that can reach an height of 4 to 6 meters in adulthood. However, there are also centuries-old specimens that are even more than 18 meters high. They are rather long-lived plants since 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 wide with prickly apex, from young in the lower part of the plant with very thorny margin, from adult with almost thorn-free margin, dark green and glossy on the upper page. The bark is pale gray and smooth. The flowers are small, white, pink or purple, perfumed, in clusters of the axils of the leaves, on separate plants, at the end of spring. The fruits are red berries about 1 cm in diameter.
The wood is hard and homogeneous, rather heavy, greyish white in color that darkens with age. It is used for valuable artifacts.
It is native to western Asia and Europe, in particular they come from forest habitats where they grow together with beech and oak trees.
Given its widespread use in the garden, there are many cultivars available.

The holly is cultivated in slightly acid soils, they adapt to any soil, even if they do not like clay and excessively basic soils. It is prepared a compound suitable for the cultivation of the holly by mixing peat with soft soil, enriched with mature organic fertilizer.These are less demanding plants, but generally prefer a light, deep and possibly acid or sub-acid soil. Usually the presence of limestone is not a problem. The major drawbacks can derive from an excessively compact and heavy substrate. This can cause water stagnation and rot in the underground apparatus. In this case, at planting, it is advisable to prepare a draining layer rather often and incorporate a good amount of manure.Multiplication

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

Pests and diseases

fears the development of cochineal and rust.


Ilex aquifoliums 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 or even bare-rooted bread.
The best time for this operation is undoubtedly the autumn. In this way the plant will have the whole cold season to adapt to the new location and eventually begin to explore the surrounding land with the roots. However, it is also possible to proceed in spring (especially for potted plants), while summer is to be avoided.
You will have to open a large and deep hole at least two weeks before planting so that the soil can oxygenate 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 centimeters above the surface. We fill with the soil mixed with the soil improver. Let us water abundantly.


The application of fertilizer is minimal, given also 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, it is always a good practice, before winter, to cover the foot with a good amount of mature flour manure, to be buried then with light hoeing on arrival of summer.


The ilex is very rustic. It can easily withstand temperatures up to -15 degrees, even maintained over a long period.
As a result, it can be planted outside with tranquility throughout our country with the exception, perhaps, of Alpine areas above 1200 meters of altitude.

Growth and pruning

Hollies bear pruning very well. They are in fact used for formal hedges and for topiary art. If prunings are frequent we will be able to obtain a very thick specimen within a few years and give it the shape we prefer.
Generally we intervene at the end of winter, to stimulate recovery and vegetative growth. However you can intervene at any time, especially in order to maintain the form.
We also keep in mind that, if we want abundant berries during the winter season, we will have to avoid intervening from mid-spring onwards. In fact, we would risk cutting just the ripening flowers or fruits.
The growth is rather slow and is on average 15-20 cm per year.
To create beautiful hedges and compact them within a few years it will be good to distance the subjects by about one meter. If instead we want a more natural aspect, that is a free hedge, we can reach even 3 meters between one plant and another.

Dioic plant

In most of the ilex male and female flowers are found on separate plants.
Generally female individuals are bought to enjoy the berries.
For the flowers to be pollinated, it is necessary to have a male nearby. One out of every five females is enough.
Some nurserymen have solved this problem by inserting a male branch on a female plant.
There are also some hermaphrodite cultivars.
Pests and diseases
Holly generally has few enemies. Occasional attacks of cochineal or aphids can occur, but it is rarely necessary to intervene.

Variety Common holly

Crispa aurea picta has thick, sometimes wavy, thorn-free leaves, except at the apex. They have a central yellow-green spot.
Argentea marginata has pinkish young leaves, then white margins with green branches and red berries.
Bacciflava bears yellow berries and thorny leaves
Ferox also called hedgehog hen, only male. The leaves have thorns on the upper page.
Ferox argentea also this only male, it has leaves with upper page provided with thorns and cream-yellow margin
Handsworth New Silver it has purple branches, white-bordered leaves and small red berries
Flavescens also called "moonlight", the small and central veins are yellow. The edge of the leaves can also be smooth
J. C. Van Tol plant both male and female. It has thick dark green leaves, shiny and smooth on the upper side. They are almost completely without thorns.
Madame Briot the leaves of this feminine form are broad and have a dark yellow margin. It produces many scarlet berries.
Pyramidalis fructu luteum has oval, dark green and shiny leaves, often without thorns. It has large and abundant yellow berries
Silver Milkmaid it has dark green leaves with a creamy-white spot in the center and abundant red berries.
Men's Silver Queen, has large white leaves along the edge, orange and pale pink when young. The branches are a deep purple.

Holly - Ilex aquifolium: Other varieties of holly

Highclere holly It is a hybrid between a common holly and Ilex perado, a native of the Azores. It has more rounded sheets. There are many cultivars and it is very stylized in gardens: Wilsonii, Lawsoniana, Golden King, Camellifolia, Golden Belgica
Ilex x Koehneana it has elliptic to oblong leaves, very thorny, young bronze and then bright green. The branches are stained with purple. It is a hybrid obtained in Florence between the Aquifolium and the tarajo.
Tarajo holly from eastern China and Japan. It has oblong leaves, very thick and with coarse and non-thorny teeth, olive green as well as the branches. It is the only species of holly that spontaneously lives in temperate zones.
American holly the upper side 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 thickets. It has ovate to elliptical leaves, not toothed. The margin over time becomes bronze.
Purple holly native to China and Japan has elliptic-lanceolate, bronze-like leaves when young.
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