How To Tell The Difference Between A Male And Female Holly Bush

Numerous shrubs produce berries, many of which using both male and females flowers on the same plant. However, some shrubs — like holly — are dioecious, meaning they require separate male and female plants in order for pollination to occur.

Of course, in their native environments, this doesn’t pose a problem. Nature simply takes care of itself. In the home landscape, however, knowing how to tell the difference between a male and female holly bush is important. If you don’t have at least one male within close proximity of a female, pollination will not occur. As a result, there will be no berries on holly. It takes just one male to pollinate several female plants.

Holly Plant Male and Female Differences

Male and female holly flowers grow on different plants. Although some plants may be tagged with their particular sex, this is rarely the case. Therefore, it is oftentimes up to you to determine the difference. This is not an easy task. It is nearly impossible to distinguish the male and female holly bush prior to blooming.

Generally, all females produce berries. Males do not. If you find a plant with berries, it’s usually safe to say that

it is female. The best way to determine the sex of holly plants is by examining the flowers, which are located between the leaf and branch joint. Although the small clusters of creamy white flowers are similar in appearance, males have more prominent stamens than females.

Types of Holly Shrubs

There are many types of holly shrubs:

  • English holly (Ilex aquifolium) is one of the most common with its familiar glossy, dark-green spiky leaves and bright red berries used for Christmas displays.
  • Chinese holly (I. cornuta) is one of the few types of holly shrubs that can actually produce berries without male pollination. These berries vary in color from red, dark orange to yellow.
  • The Japanese holly (I. crenata) produces vibrant black-colored berries. This is also true of the inkberry variety (I. glabra), which is very similar and just as striking.
  • There are several varieties of Blue holly (I. x meserveae) available as well, which produce attractive bluish-green foliage, purple stems, and red berries.

To ensure you have both male and females, stick with similar varieties of holly plant, male and female are not always labeled. Named cultivars, however, are usually found in both male and female varieties. For instance, ‘Blue Prince’ and ‘Blue Princess’, ‘China Boy’ and ‘China Girl’, or ‘Blue Stallion’ and ‘Blue Maid.’

One word of caution, not all male/female names can be relied upon. Take, for example, the variegated Golden holly varieties ‘Golden King’ and ‘Golden Queen.’ The names are deceptive, as ‘Golden King’ is actually the female plant while ‘Golden Queen’ is the male.

Planting Holly Shrubs

When planting holly shrubs, place them in full sun or partial shade and well-drained soil. The best time for planting holly shrubs is fall, although spring is also suitable depending on your particular region. Warmer climates benefit from fall planting so their roots have plenty of time to take hold before the onset of hot, dry summers. Hollies should be spaced 2 to 3 feet apart, depending on the variety used and overall size. Most types of holly shrubs have shallow root systems so add mulch.

Holly shrubs can also benefit from occasional pruning to enhance their appearance.

Kathleen Meserve, an observant gardener from St. James, L.I., saw the merits of several holly species and went to work. Her results? The blue holly hybrids that have swept the nursery market in this region, because the plants are hardy and handsome.

Her first plants, Blue Girl and Blue Boy, were introduced in 1964. These holly hybrids have the toughness of Ilex rugosa, a durable species from Asia, and the beauty of the English holly (Ilex aquifolium). This interspecific cross was so successful that a new species was named for her, Ilex meserveae.

Nurseries have discontinued the first Meserve hollies and stocked up on the later ones, including Blue Princess, Blue Prince, Blue Maid and Blue Stallion. Blue Prince is an excellent pollinator, and most nursery operators say that only one plant need be set out for all of the female hollies in a garden. The bees do the work in May ,when the hollies are in flower.

One holly that deserves more space is the hardy winterberry, Ilex verticillata. Because it loses leaves in late fall, many gardeners do not like to use it. But when the leaves fall off, the brilliant red berries show off and can be seen for quite some distance. One plant grown to its fullest size — possibly five to six feet or more — can be loaded with the berries, a real showpiece. This holly is also hardy, and nothing is more dramatic than the berries against a bank of clean snow.

By contrast, the Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta) is equally showy, but not hardy in these parts. Gardeners have been able to carry it along in milder winter seasons with some protection and heavy mulching after the ground freezes. But it can be killed off when winters are severe. The newer cultivar Burfordi is considered somewhat tougher, though this one has rounded leaves and not the stiff spiny form of the true Ilex cornuta.

Ilex Family: Holly Varieties and How to Grow Them

Ilex or the Holly family of plants is familair to most of us – perhaps most notably in winter when this iconic evergreen shrub with deep green, glossy leaves is covered in visually contrasting blood red berries. These gorgeous evergreen plants offer ornamental interest in the garden and sustenance for wildlife.

Whether grown as a hedge or a standalone shrub, Holly is always impressive. (Left: Common Holly, right: Ilex A. Alaska)

Ilex or Holly is a large family of plants with many varieties, which can be male or female. It is an ancinet plant with a fascinating history throughout the world. From our own native English holly Ilex Aquifolium to the small-leaved Japanese Holly Ilex Crenata there are countless beautiful Hollies to consider when seeking the perfect match for your own garden, from the stunning variegated hollies to topiary Hollies and Ilex Crenata Cloud trees.

Before we take a deeper look into the Holly varieties, let’s see why Hollies hold such a special place in the world of evergreens.

The Symbolism of the Holly Through History

While most of us in Britain will be familiar with holly as a Christmas decoration, Hollies also play an important role in the folklore of many cultures.

In ancient Rome, Holly was considered sacral, and Ilex twigs were placed on doors to ward off evil. Additionally, Hollies were grown near a home as it was believed this would keep its inhabitants safe from witchcraft and strike of lightning.

Common Holly with variegated foliage brings a welcome twist to a well-loved classic.

Similarly, in the British Isles, our native Ilex Aquifolium was held in high esteem by the ancient druids. The berry-producing shrub was credited with protective abilities and represented fertility and eternal life.

But the most widely recognisable symbolism for this shrub is of Christian origin. The thorny boughs of the evergreen shrub represent the crown of thorns which Jesus Christ wore before he died and the vivid crimson berries stand in place of drops of blood. In fact, the German word for Holly is “christdorn” which means Christ’s thorn. Nowadays, Hollies are still widely used as Christmas ornamental plants, from beautiful wreaths to boughs to accompany decorated Douglas firs.

Ilex Family of Plants: Best Holly Varieties

Ilex, or Holly, is a large family of (mainly evergreen) plants that includes 400 to 600 separate species. Needless to say, Ilex shrubs come in various shapes and sizes – offering something for everyone!

What is common for the majority of Hollies is that the individual plants are either male or female; meaning that you will need one of each plant in the near vicinity for the shrub to produce the red berries. Additionally, while the berries might be toxic to humans, wildlife thrives on them. Overwintering birds such as robins, chaffinches, bramblings, and others, absolutely adore these juicy crimson berries.

Here at Paramount Plants and Gardens, we offer a selection of Holly varieties. In addition to this, our hollies come in many shapes and sizes. Hollies for growing as stand-alone bushes are a given. But we also offer hollies for hedging. Holly Trees can be pleached Ilex trees or standard holly trees. We also have holly topiary Here are our best selling Holly varieties:

Ilex Aquifolium (Common or Native Holly)

This mushroom-shaped holly variety is ideal for growing in pots near a patio for a year-round interest.

The easily recognisable English Holly lends itself well to a variety of roles in the garden. Slow growing and resilient, it is ideally suited for hedging or as a windbreak in coastal gardens. If you want to grow common Holly with a twist, choose the compact, mushroom-shaped Ilex Aquifolium Argentea Marginata that flaunts variegated foliage – it is also available in a topiary form.

Other popular choices include the conical Ilex Nellie Stevens (also available as a pleached tree and topiary tree form) and the striking and self-pollinating lIex Aquifolium Alaska.

Ilex Meserveae (Blue Holly)

Ilex Meservae Blue Angel will steal the spotlight wherever you choose to plant it.

Best known for their dark, waxy blue-green leaves, the Blue Hollies leave no one indifferent. They are perfect for mixed shrub borders where they offer multiple seasons of interest or planted en masse for hedging. Combine a male variety such as the Ilex Meserveae Heckenpracht or Blue Prince (available as a topiary globe and a cloud tree) with one of the many female shrubs. Some favourites include Blue Angel (available as topiary), Blue Princess, or Blue Maid.

Ilex Crenata (Japanese Holly)

The Japanese Holly Convexa is ideal for topiaries as it flaunts dense, easily shaped foliage.

This species of Ilex native to Asia is best known for its dense, evergreen foliage comprised of tiny leaves. It is also known as box-leaved Holly, as it has leaves similar to those of Buxus. Because of this, Japanese Holly is most often used in hedging or trained as a topiary. At Paramount Plants and Gardens, we offer Ilex Crenata in all shapes and sizes: from pleached and Niwaki trees to lollipops, balls and spirals.

Ilex Koehneana (Chestnut Leaf Holly)

Grown as a pleached tree, this female Holly variety stands out for its large, chestnut-like leaves. If you want a highly-decorative variety that produces abundant crops of vermilion berries that will keep overwintering birds in your garden well fed, choose Ilex Koehneana. Just make sure to plant one of the male Hollies in its near vicinity!

Ilex Altaclerensis (Highclere Hollies)

This attractive hybrid originates from England. Its large and almost spineless leaves, as well as its imposing size, make Ilex Altaclerensis a welcome addition to spacious gardens.

Tips for UK Gardeners- How to Grow and Care for Hollies

Even though this gorgeous evergreen shrub offers year-round interest, it is not overly demanding. Most Hollies are fully hardy in the United Kingdom, and will not need any additional sheltering during cold winters. Choose a spot in full sun for optimal results, and well-drained, loamy soil.

When it comes to pruning Hollies, a lot will depend on the specific cultivar you have. For instance, Japanese Holly, especially those trained as topiary or cloud trees, do well with the occasional trimming and shaping. On the other hand, standard bushy Hollies need thinning from time to time – removing straggly, congested shoots will prevent disease and make for a prettier plant. Overall, caring for Ilex varieties is not complicated or time-consuming.

Expert Advice on Growing Holly

One stands out head and shoulders above the others and that is Welsh Holly. They are a dedicated holly nursery where they grow a huge number of these plants. They are the best source for healthy and reasonably priced holly trees in the UK. We thoroughly recommend them.

The plants are healthy, they come well packaged and can be ordered from their website. Plants raised at this nursery will grow on well in almost all areas of the UK because they have been grown in average UK weather rather than in some of the milder areas.

If you are in the Exeter area then we can also recommend the two St Bridget Nurseries nearby. They grow many of their own plants which can also be ordered online. They sell a reasonably good range of home-grown holly plants.


Hollies come in all shapes and sizes including variegated leaves. It’s impossible for us to say which is holly is best for you because your needs and taste will be different from ours. We do have a few favourites though and these appear below. All pictures below are courtesy of Welsh Holly. They have a far more extensive library of pictures and descriptions which can be found here.

‘J C VAN TOL’ (ilex aquifolium)
Many people don’t have room for more than one holly tree and this variety is the ideal solution because it is self-fertile and produces berries as a single tree.

As you can see from the picture above J C van Tol makes an impressive standard holly. The evergreen leaves have almost no prickles and are dark green. the red berries are produced freely. It prunes to shape well and makes an ideal hedge or single show plant. It is available also with silver or gold variegated leaves. As much as we like the variegated leaves of many hollies, we prefer the plain green leaves of the normal variety.

ELEGANTISSIMA (ilex aquifolium)
One of the very best of the variegated forms of holly. The colour of the leaves change as they age, form a lighter green and pinkish white to the more distinguished dark green and cream-white

This variety is in male form only so won’t produce berries but it can be used to pollinate other female varieties of holly. It makes an ideal centre point as a single plant or as a hedge. Birds will use it for shelter.

BELGICA AUREA / SILVER SENTINEL (ilex altaclerensis)
An elegant and beautiful holly plant with spineless leaves. Berries are produced on female forms but not as much as other varieties. It is the long leaves which distinguish this variety.

Left unpruned it can grow to 10m high though it is easily controlled with an annual prune. This variety grows quicker than most other hollies.

ARGENTEA MARGINATA (ilex aquifolium)
A variegated female form of holly with beautifully coloured leaves and deep red berries.

One of the most popular of all the hollies, this variety dates back to 1770. The leaves have a pinkish hue when young which turns to silver and green. A definite winner.


Hollies make excellent hedges and there is one particular variety which is particularly useful. It is Ilex crenata ‘Dark Green’. Its growth habit and appearance is almost identical to a Box Tree hedge but with some distinct advantages.

Another alternative, with slightly larger leaves, is Ilex crenata ‘Golden Gem’ – see the picture below.

Ilex crenata Golden Gem

Firstly it is far more resistant to pests and diseases compared to Box tree hedges which in recent years have begun to suffer badly from a number of problems, see our Box Tree Caterpillar news article for example. Box blight has also spread to many parts of the UK, Ilex crenata is not affected by Box Blight.

Damage caused by Box Blight

Ilex crenata also does not suffer from leaf burn when trimmed to shape, a distinct advantage and time saver when trimming hedges. It is also fully capable of springing back into growth from bare wood, something which Box is not capable of.

We have negotiated a 10% discount on Ilex crenata ‘Dark Green’ for you from Victoriana Nursery. If you click on the , the 10% will be deducted at the checkout automatically, no need for a code.


Below we list the key strengths and weaknesses of Hollies.

HARDY (to -18°C)
SHADE Partial, full sun
POT / CONTAINER Some types
FLOWER TIME Winter berries (female plants)

We visited How Hill Farm, on the edge of the Norfolk Broads, and spoke to Nick Coller who grows and harvests holly for the festive season. Here, we talk about the farm, caring for holly, and Nick recommends his six favourite varieties.

On a crisp winter’s morning at How Hill Farm, Nick Coller is engaged in what he calls the race against the pigeons. Perched 12 feet up a tapered wooden orchard ladder, while his uncle, Peter Boardman, watches below, he is gathering in this year’s heavily berried holly harvest before the birds get it.

“We need to stay ahead of them, so we start harvesting in early November or even late October,” he says. “We have migratory birds such as fieldfares and redwings later but, earlier on, pigeons are the worst culprits – they can gorge their way through the berries with alarming speed and all we are left with are stalks!”

The holly farm…

The crop is garnered from five acres of holly orchard, arranged in five blocks around the family’s 400-acre mixed-arable farm and fitted in between the main crops of sugar beet, potatoes, barley, wheat and apples. The trees Nick is cutting from – some nearly 80 years old – are in fine condition with plump, glistening berries in shades of scarlet and orange, standing out against glossy leaves, both green and variegated. In a good year, Nick can harvest as much as five tonnes of holly from them, cutting it into 70cm-90cm lengths to drop into apple bins towed by his tractor.

It takes at least 20 years for a tree to grow large enough.

To buy time, half of it can be kept in the farm’s cold store until Nick is ready to pack it up into 4kg boxes and send it to market. This is one of the tricks of the trade Peter learned when he joined the Holly Society of America and travelled on fact-finding trips to the Pacific Northwest, where holly farming is much bigger business than it is here.

“As far as I know, we are still the only commercial one of its kind in the UK – it’s a long-term commitment because it takes at least 20 years for a tree to grow large enough to be able to cut off a reasonable amount,” Peter explains.

The tradition…

Holly has been used to decorate our houses for centuries. The custom can be traced back to the Druids, who held evergreens to be sacred and believed they could ward off woodland spirits. Later, Christians saw holly berries as symbols of Christ’s blood and suffering. During the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which took place in December, it was customary to send the boughs as tokens of esteem and we still think of it as a symbol of goodwill today, which is why we bring it in to deck our homes and churches.

The first trees at How Hill Farm were put in by Peter’s father in 1938, although no one knows what he had in mind because, sadly, he was killed in the War soon after. At that time, it was a fruit farm but when Peter took it over from his mother in 1953, he could see the holly’s potential, and began nurturing it to cut and sell, which he started doing in 1968.

How to care for holly…

Holly needs moisture and there is plenty here: How Hill Farm is on the Norfolk Broads, adjoining a nationally important marshland nature reserve that is home to swallowtail butterflies and marsh harriers. Peter’s kitchen window in the 1850s farmhouse frames a picture-perfect view across his garden (which he opens regularly for the National Gardens Scheme) towards the River Ant and a 19th-century windmill at nearby Turf Fen.

I prune the trees into an A-shape to get maximum light to the leaves and berries.

Nick grew up here and helped out on the farm as a boy, after which his horticultural training and spells fruit farming abroad honed his skills. “I prune the trees into an A-shape to get maximum light to the leaves and berries, and to make them easier to access at harvest time,” he says. “I keep the weeds down round them and once a year they all get fed with farmyard manure.”

“Holly varieties mature at different times, just like apples do,” Peter adds. “Each tree can be cut every second or third year and we obviously cut from whichever ones have the most berries.” They have about 100 different varieties, including several spectacular ones that are always high-yielding: variegated ‘Golden King’, dark-green ‘J.C. van Tol’ and the large-berried ‘Firecracker’. As an obvious addition, Nick has started growing mistletoe on the Bramley apple trees in their orchard.

It looks pretty in the branches and doesn’t seem to have any detrimental effect on their fruiting: “Mistletoe is a parasitic plant, so it needs a host. The seeds ripen at Easter and are very sticky. I squash them and just attach them to the underside of the branches, out of the sun on the north side, where they will stay relatively moist.” This, too, is a slow process – after ten years, the bunches are just about ready to cut from. The only maintenance they need is a little pruning of the tree to let light get through.

Peter’s one remaining ambition is to find a white-berried holly: “Trade catalogues listed it 200 years ago and it has disappeared, but I feel sure there must be one in a hedgerow somewhere or in an old rectory garden perhaps. Discovering one would be a triumph.”

Meanwhile, Nick’s ambitions are to keep How Hill Farm’s expanding collection of hollies healthy and productive and to keep finding new markets for it. That would make his Christmas.


1. Ilex ‘Nellie R. Stevens’

2. I. aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’

3. I. x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’

4. I. aquifolium ‘Amber’

5. I. aquifolium ‘J.C. van Tol’

6. I. aquifolium ‘Bacciflava’

Peter Boardman 1932-2016

After helping us with this feature, Peter Boardman sadly passed away in September 2016. As he was immensely proud of his holly farm, his family asked that we publish it in its original form as a fitting tribute. Peter was, in fact, one of the few people who has been featured in Country Living more than once – we included his farm in our gardening section in 2009. On both occasions we were proud to champion a man who did a wonderful job of promoting one of the most traditional forms of British greenery.

This feature is from Country Living magazine. Subscribe here.

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