December 7, 2011

Do I Dare?

I want to plant an American holly.  Do I dare?

Ilex opaca is a native holly, and it can get to be a huge tree.  It's not the small foundation holly bush that you see around homes.   It's a tree, and a spectacular one.
I took this photo last summer at the Connecticut College arboretum in New London (along the Connecticut shoreline).  It is about 25 feet tall.  It is in a sunny clearing in the woods, not far from the ocean, apparently the perfect conditions for it.

It has it all --- it's deep green (not so glossy as English holly, though), it is evergreen, perfectly shaped, and it has berries.  It has branches that grow to the ground, although old specimens become more open.

It looks like Christmas all year long.  Joene from Joene's Garden suggested it for the open space next to my house where the former Bradford Pear tree met its demise.

But do I dare experiment with one?  My reservation is that no one sells them here in zone 5 northern Connecticut.  When I tried to get Ilex opaca at local nurseries I was told they are hardy (marginally), and will survive the winter temperatures but are too prone to winter burn.  They need to be grown in a protected spot, which I don't really have.  The east side of my house will give it afternoon shade in the summer.  But not much protection in winter.

This is where Ilex opaca grows naturally (from Wikipedia).  
Can you see the little green dot in Boston and a few along the Connecticut shore?  Its range includes southern New England, but only the coastal areas.  Do you see any green shading in northern Connecticut?  No, me neither.

One landscaper said he could get an American holly for me and would plant it, but would not give me the standard one year planting guarantee.  And yet there are mature holly trees around here, planted many years ago in parks and estates.  The green shaded native range map from Wikipedia just shows where they grow naturally, not where they CAN grow.

I so want this perfect looking tree.  Do I dare?

I have pushed zones with some trees and they do well (my sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum, shouldn't grow here but does.  And a persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, is native further south but thrives for me.)

I took this photo of Ilex opaca at the elevated High Line Park in Manhattan this fall.  It is about 10 feet high.  It is potentially exposed to winter winds up there, 30 feet above New York's streets, but it is near the moderating ocean.

Apparently an Ilex opaca north of its preferred range will not get as big.  But what I really want is that tree from the photograph I took at Conn College last summer --- the photo at the top of this post.  That is what I want growing in an open sunny spot in my garden where the poor beknighted pear tree once was.

Joene tells me she has seen open planted specimens in her neighborhood, planted out where the sun and the wind are.  And they do well.  She is only a few miles south of me in central Connecticut.

Do I dare try one?  What if it winterburns and looks horrible and is a mistake?

If you garden inland north of the Mason Dixon line, and you have grown Ilex opaca successfully, and it looks great and doesn't get crispy in winter, send me a picture and some encouragement.

The University of Connecticut (UConn) plant database shows some huge American holly specimens, and the school is located in northern Connecticut.  I just don't know if their photos are all campus shots or if they post pictures from other parts of the country.


  1. We have a 30-foot American holly covered in berries every year, in central western New Jersey, but it's in a protected location next to the house and surrounded by other trees. But it's so surrounded that it doesn't have the classic holly shape, more a vertical bank of holly foliage. I'll try to get a picture this weekend and send it.

  2. The birds plant these all around here. I have two. ONe in the garden and one in the side lot. Neither make berries. Grrrrrr. I still like the evergreen. I say go for it. If you don't like it pull it out.

  3. Well, I haven't grown that holly, but I'll encourage you to push limits anyway. The holly makes a lot more sense than my trying to grow nandina in Connecticut (away from the Sound). You're going to try it. I know you will.

  4. Won't you be my Ilex opaca plant buddy? I'm planting at least one, maybe two, Ilex opaca next spring (would have planted one this autumn had time and weather stars aligned).

    If we plant at about the same time we can compare notes each season.

  5. I'm all for pushing zone boundaries. Go for it!
    I live in zone 3. I want to grow Helleborus niger, hardy to zone 4. I have the same problem trying to find a nursery that sells it.

  6. It looks like a beautiful tree. Will just one produce berries? Are there male and female ones, like some other hollies? If you really want one, why not try it? If you get a small plant, it won't cost you too much if it fails, and then at least you'll know.

  7. You'll never know til you try, so go for it. It's a risk that just might pay off. I'm going to make the same gamble next spring when I repalce my too-hot hydrangeas with loropetalum instead of tried and true hollies. If it needs shelter from the wind, do you have room to plant a small wind break to give you privacy and shelter the holly?

  8. James, I'd love to see a photo of your holly, whatever its form is.

    Lisa, I'm assuming the wild planted ones you see all around are not winterburned or stunted, and look pretty good?

    Lee, I can't help but think of your hardy orange growing in central Conn.! But I have no real shelter from house or woods nearby, so this will be in the open. But . . .

    Joene, I would love to trial plants together! What is your source? Broken Arrow Nursery shows I. opaca in its retail catalog -- a "female select" and 'Jersey Princess". If we do this next spring, we should try to grow the same cultivar from the same place. This could be an interesting experiment!

    Melanie, you must have pushed zone boundaries a lot! I just might try this.

    Lyn, Ilex opaca will need a male in order for the female to produce berries, so I have to factor that in. I certainly am no stranger to trying out plants and watching them fail! But I've had successes too.

    Tammy, Some of my original plantings around the house are now getting big enough to provide a sort of wind break in places. I'll need to think that through. The spot I want to use is out in the open, though.

  9. Can't help with hardiness but they are beautiful trees. We have a wild one here that fell over in Hurricane Floyd (the perfect pyramid shape before then) but has gamely set up leaders and fruited since. It fruits spectacularly in good years. There are VERY large old hollies growing on the banks of the creek.

  10. Laurrie, you brought a sigh from me. We once had a magnificent, fully grown American Holly tee. It was a casualty of the tornado that destroyed a large chunk of our property in 1990. I still remember it. I hope you can grow one successfully in your garden! As your photos show, they are pretty even when young.

  11. I say go for it! It's a beautiful tree, judging by these photographs. If you start with a small specimen, you won't be out that much money if it doesn't make it, but here's hoping it will.

  12. Laurrie, the longing in your voice is so familiar! Go for it, you may just be surprised and if you don't like it, yank it... Life's too short not to give it a try! It's beautiful.

  13. Sweetbay, I'd love to see pictures o the wild hollies you have around you.

    Deborah, how distressing to have lost such specimens from the tornado. Your garden has recovered beautifully in the decades since '90.

    Rose, I am tempted, and can start out with a very small one, but it will stress me out if it grows ok but looks horrible.

    Cat, I am getting plenty of great encouragement to at least try growing this tree!

  14. Another vote here to try this tree. It's amazing what we're able to grow outside of the supposed limits. Part of gardening is the experimenting so have some fun.

  15. Laurrie,
    I planted four I. opacas in my backyard two years ago & they're doing great...of course I'm in VA, zone 7a...but our past couple of winters were pretty rough and they came through.

    Mine are about 6 or 7 feet tall now and I decorate them with ornaments each christmas.

  16. I've never grown that holly, but I say push it. It's part of the fun of gardening -- try a challenge, learn something. My only word of caution would be the leaves. I have a small holly shrub, and the points on the leaves hurt! Cheers.

  17. My grower will not plant holly in a windy or too bright an area and he grows fields of them. They withstand the sun better than the wind though. I am going to post his fields of holly, Blue Boy and Girl and Prince and Princess later, they are all massed together to keep the elements from affecting them. Also, the variety you mentioned, he does not like them for the unruly size that they get for most residential scapes. Digging them out when they get too big is a bear. But you can trim them. I wish I could send you photos, but all the big ones that I know are very old and not so nice looking that are planted near residences.

  18. Marguerite, thanks for the encouragement. I know I should be adventurous and try growing this.

    Mary, I'd love to see a post of your ilex opaca. After two years, to have 7 foot tall trees is great.

    Kevin, I do grow the smaller hollies, and you are right about lethal injury from the spiny leaves!

    Donna, I have the meserve hollies (Blue Princess and Prince) and they do well for me here, no leaf burn at all. I wonder if that's an indication that ilex opaca would be ok too.

  19. Laurrie,
    Searching out sources for Ilex opaca in on my winter to do. Let's keep in touch via email and see what we come up with.

  20. American Holly grows very well on the East Coast south of Boston. They will grow huge in the Tri-State area (NY/NJ/CT) given time. I have two near New Haven that are nearly 40 feet tall!

    1. Anonymous, I did plant a good sized American Holly in 2012. It's doing well. I'll post an update.


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