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Ilex opaca - American Holly

Ilex opaca - American Holly

Popular during the holiday season, Ilex opaca produces iconic bright red berries and deep green leaves that adorn wreaths. This holly is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it functions as a great shelter shrub and its leaves can be brewed into a tea!

Scientific Name: Ilex opaca Common Name: American holly Plant Family: Aquifoliaceae (holly family)

Etymology: Opaca comes from the Latin “opacus” meaning shaded, dark, opaque, or the condition of being sheltered from light. Ilex opaca acts as a shelter shrub in many gardens, thus acting like a shaded barrier.

Edible Parts

Leaves can be roasted or dried to be brewed into a non-caffeinated tea.

Historic Uses

The Cherokees used the Ilex opaca berries for colics, the leaves to relieve cramped muscles, and the wood to create cooking tools. The Catawbas also used the leaves to relieve sores, the Choctaw made a decoction of leaves for sore eyes, and the Koasati rubbed infused bark to relieve itchy skin.


Ilex opaca is native to eastern and central U.S. and can be found in forest bottomlands, on the edges of swamps, and in the moist parts of woods.

How to Identify

Easily identified by its bright red berries and leathery green leaves. In addition, the leaves have marginal teeth and the fruit only grows on female trees.

Additional Information

When planting Ilex opaca, it’s recommended to plant one male tree per three female trees to make sure that the plants will get properly pollinated. In general, hollies are hardy shrubs that can grow to be very large in the wild. 

Planting Considerations

  • USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Native Range: Eastern United States
  • Forest Garden Layer: shrub, understory
  • Permaculture functions: used to create a shaded barrier, windbreaks, hedges, bird gardens
  • Soil moisture: prefers moist, well-drained soil
  • Soil texture: can grow in sandy, loamy, and clay soils
  • Soil pH:
  • Height: 15-30 ft.
  • Spread: 10-20ft.
  • Growth rate: slow
  • Sun: prefers a shaded area, can grow in full-sun or full-shade
  • Bloom: Creamy white flowers bloom in May
  • Attracts: birds
  • Tolerates: wind, deer, clay soil, air pollution
  • Drawbacks: will not tolerate flooding, leaves are susceptible to potential insect and disease problems


  • Ellis, Barbara W. Chesapeake Gardening and Landscaping: The Essential Green Guide. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
  • Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1998.

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