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Hollies (Ilex)

Best known for its association with Christmas, many hollies are highly decorative and are widely used as ornamental plants.

Frosted holly leavesWestonbirt's evergreen species in particular come into their own in winter when their shiny green leaves and (often) brightly coloured berries add colour and cheer.

They also provide vital shelter and food for our wildlife. The hard white timber is used in turnery, inlay work and for chess pieces.

The genus name Ilex actually comes from the Latin name for another tree – the evergreen Holm oak (Quercus ilex), suggesting that the holly was named after the resemblance of its leaves to those of the holm oak – rather than the other way around as is often thought.

However, given that the Holm oak is a large tree native to the Mediterranean, it is perhaps not surprising that early classical botanists recognised and described it before the more inconspicuous holly.

Holly with berries (Ilex aquifolium)Common holly, Ilex aquifolium

Our native common holly is a striking and easily recognisable tree, which made it perfect as a boundary marker in hedgerows (it was also thought that this would stop witches running along the tops of the hedge!). It is also often found growing as an understorey tree in woodlands. As with most holly species, there are male and female plants - with only the female bearing the red berries. Found throughout the arboretum, there are also a number of cultivated varieties with attractive variegated foliage.

Ilex aquifolium 'Ferox'

A holly that certainly lives up to the belief that hollies are prickly! Known as the hedgehog holly, its leaves are often covered with prickles (not just the edges) - and this has also give the cultivar name – ‘ferox’ meaning ferocious!

Highclere holly and berriesHighclere holly, Ilex x altaclerensis

This popular hybrid of common holly and Ilex perado is a common sight in both the Old Arboretum and Silk Wood, particularly in its many garden varieties. The plant’s common name comes from its early cultivation at Highclere Castle in Berkshire. It is surprisingly hardy given the fact that I. perado comes from Madeira. The leaves are very variable between different varieties but tend to be larger and less spiny than common holly. Some grow to be very large shrubs or even sizeable trees.

Tilia x europea at WestonbirtIlex macrocarpa

An example of a deciduous holly, this small to medium sized tree was introduced from Southwest China in 1907. It has surprisingly large black, cherry-like berries and serrated (but not prickly) leaves.

Ilex kingiana

Ilex kingiana at Westonbirt Arboretum, credit Simon Toomer.Introduced by Sir Joseph Hooker in 1880, this large shrub is native to the Eastern Himalayas and Yunnan. It has impressively large leathery leaves which are spiny in young plants and red berries.

Last updated: 10th July 2017


Westonbirt Arboretum

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England's Woods and Forests are cared for by Forest Enterprise England, an agency of the Forestry Commission.