When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in December of 1620, they found themselves a long way from home in a bleak, wintry world, surrounded by unfamiliar plants and wilderness. However, one feature of the foreign landscape was warmly familiar to them: a grove of holly trees, their glossy green leaves and bright red berries popping out of the snowy scene. The trees were reminiscent of the English holly, which the settlers had left behind just months before.
The American holly (Ilex opaca) is a native tree with stout, stiff branches. It has thick, spine-tipped leaves and female trees have small, bright-red berries. It can be found in moist areas throughout the understory of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, growing as tall as 60 feet in some areas.
In the years since it welcomed the Pilgrims to America’s shores, the American holly has served as a symbol of joy and merriment, decking our halls and wreathing our doors during the holiday season. The tree was also a personal favorite of President George Washington. Today, around a dozen American hollies, which are said to be the offspring of a tree planted by Washington himself, can be found growing on the grounds of his historic Mount Vernon home.
The American holly fills a valuable ecological role, too. It is an evergreen tree, which means that it maintains its green foliage year-round. In the winter, the holly’s leathery, densely-clustered leaves shield songbirds and mammals from blustering winds, while its berries are a reliable source of food. In 1939, the state of Delaware regarded the tree to be such a valuable asset to its forest wildlife that it named the American holly the official state tree.
An American holly can be a great addition to your yard, providing critters with lush habitat and year-round food, while also adding a splash of holiday cheer. However, please note: there are more than 1,000 cultivated varieties of American holly, and not all of them are native. Consult with your local plant nursery or forestry expert before planting an American holly.
Learn more about the American holly in our Field Guide.