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Plant Profiles

Yellow-berried American Holly



Red berries?  Like it or not, they always say "Christmas is coming!"  But there can be three months of Winter to follow.  Yellow berries are the answer—and these of American holly will last not just through Christmas, but all the way through March.




Here it is February, and the berries are still pristine:  They're neither shriveled nor eaten.  And they stand out against the olive-green holly foliage so much better than the red ones ever did.



Here's how to grow this usually colorful American holly:

Latin Name

Ilex opaca 'Aurea'

Common Name

Yellow-berried American Holly


Aquifoliaceae, literally, the "wet leaf" family, from Ilex aquifolium, English holly, whose leaves are so glossy they do, in fact, seem to be wet.

What kind of plant is it?

Broadleaved evergreen tree.


Zones 5 - 9.


Multi-branched and upright; often multi-trunked.  Full to the ground unless pruned or sited in shade.  Taller than wide.

Rate of Growth


Size in ten years

Ten to twelve feet tall and six to eight feet wide.  Potentially, twenty to forty feet tall and fifteen to twenty-five feet wide.


In full sun, dense and full; looser in shade.  American holly is a rigid plant at any size and age; the branches are almost motionless, even in a strong wind.

Grown for

its bright berries.  Red berries are beautiful, but don't show up from a distance nearly as well.  Red is the default color for berries, too, so berries of other colors are particularly welcome.  In particular, red-berried holly is so strongly associated with Christmas that the display feels oddly out-of-season when it's needed the most, in the real depths of Winter from January through March.  Yellow berries triumph on all counts:  They're showy, they don't remind you of Christmas when what you really need is something interesting to distract you in the early months of the new year, and they're much less common than red. 

its shelter for wildlife.  American holly's mature size, well-branched growth, and dense prickly foliage make the tree ideal year-round shelter for small animals.


its stormy-worthy nature.  American holly has strong wood and an upright habit, which make the tree impervious to snow and ice. 


its comfort with pruning.  All hollies are extraordinarily responsive to pruning, and can produce new growth from even the oldest branches and the thickest trunks.  See "How to handle it: Another option—or two!" below for recommendations.


its lack of appeal for deer.  They eschew the stiff and prickly foliage, which would be painful to eat. 

Flowering season

Early Summer: May in Rhode Island.  Holly flowers are small and white, and not really showy.

Color combinations

American holly foliage is olive-green, so has a natural affinity with yellow. The foliage is present year-round, so there are many opportunities for neighboring plants to coordinate.


The yellow berries are showiest in the Winter, when almost any color is a gift regardless of its near neighbors; it would be a treat to see them echo the berries.  See "Partner plants" for suggestions.

Partner plants

What with the yellow-friendly hue of American holly's evergreen foliage, and the bright-yellow berries of the 'Aurea' cultivar, which are most evident in the Winter, this particular holly provides endless opportunities for yellow harmonies every month of the year.  



Plants that feature yellow in the cold months include:


Conifers: There are yellow-needled pines, cedars, Hinoki cypresses, spruces, and even sequoias.


Broadleaves: There are yellow-variegated euonymus, box, magnolia, holly, vinca, osmanthus, and camellia. 


Deciduous:  There are woody species and cultivars with yellow bark, such as some willows, Siberian dogwoods, and ashes.


Winter and early-Spring flowerers that bloom in yellow:  Shrubs such as witch hazel, Winter hazel, and Cornelian cherry; yellow and greenish-yellow hellebores; and early-season bulbs such as Winter aconite, daffodils, crocuses, and species tulips.


Some cultivars and species of tall bamboos have prominent yellow canes; as long as the bamboo was prevented from growing into the holly, the yellow elision would be sophisticated.  Consider Phyllostachys aureocaulis 'Vivax' or, even hardier, Phyllostachys aureosulcata.  The trick is to allow the bamboo to grow just close enough to establish the harmony, but not so close that it begins to shade the holly.  "Just close enough" is still far: I recommend that the bamboo canes get no nearer than twenty feet at ground level; they'll lean out to make up some of the gap.   

About the only thing not very congenial with 'Aurea' would be other species with yellow berries.  Inevitably, there would be competition, with one or the other plant coming in second.




Plants that feature yellow in the warmer months include:


Deciduous trees and shrubs and vines with gold foliage include cultivars of sambucus, forsythia, Japanese maple, spirea, willow, robinia, catalpa, jasmine, hops, viburnum, raspberry, and a dwarf bamboo,

Pleioblastus viridistriatus.  If the vines are kept under control so they don't swamp the holly, their relaxed growth and contrasting foliage would be a thrilling ornament.  The roots of the dwarf bamboo are so dense and invasive that the holly would need to be protected from them by an in-ground barrier.


Warm-weather perennials, shrubs, and vines that bloom in yellow:  There are way too many to list in detail, but some fantasy partners would be yellow-flowering forms of magnolia, clematis, honeysuckle, and rambler rose.  Any of the last three could be trained right into the holly itself.




Plants with Fall foliage that's yellow can include ornamental maples and amsonia.  American holly growing in a large "pond" of amsonia—fern-green in Summer and bright yellow in Fall—would be spectacular.

Where to use it in your garden

Ilex opaca 'Aurea' grows as large as the straight species, so can be used as large-scale screening, either growing free-range or as a clipped hedge.  The tree's growth is so strong that the hedge can be as high as you can manage; mine is about ten feet, and if I had had the easy access for a pruning platform on both sides, I could have grown them to twenty.


The yellow berries aren't visible enough at longer range to affect placement as the focus of a vista; it's the tree's broadly-conical shape, olive-green foliage, and overall impression of heavy solidity that will guide you.  Hollies of all sorts are very effective as single-cultivar groupings and, with the tree-sized types such as 'Aurea', groves.  Plant fifteen feet apart so that the conical tops of the trees are always distinct even as the bottom two-thirds grow together.  A mature grove of just three is significant enough to command its own acre of meadow; a grove of five would be more substantial still, especially if planted twenty feet apart, and could balance a weeping beech that was in charge of the adjacent acre.  


American holly has dignity and endurance, but it isn't truly a star among large-scale horticulture.  Its best use is to be massed as the backdrop for some other plant that truly is a diva:  a sensational (and huge) Japanese maple, say, underplanted with huge hostas.  A  group of gold-leaved redbuds, Cercis canadensis 'Hearts of Gold', underplanted with scilla.  A trio of variegated tree angelicas, Aralia elata 'Silver Umbrellas', underplanted with prostrate plum yews, Cephalotaxus harringtonia 'Prostrata'.    


Full sun to part shade, any reasonable soil.  Faster in full sun and rich well-draining soil, although American holly is more forgiving of moister and slower-draining soil than is usual for evergreens.

How to handle it

American holly is often a part-shade understory tree where it's native, but the growth is so much denser in full sun that this is normally the choice for use in landscapes. 


Hollies handle Winter better and better as they get larger.  American hollies in general succeed well north of New York City, but appreciate your thoughtfulness in siting and care.  Plant small-sized individuals only in the Spring in Zones 6 and 5; larger-sized plants can be installed in the Fall, too.


"Full sun" doesn't mean being exposed to all possible Winter blasts.  Can there be large evergreens to the north?  Your house to the east?  Good winter drainage, as ever, is very helpful to hardiness, especially for any plant with evergreen leaves.  A thick but loose Fall mulching with leaves and shredded bark is also a good idea.  In Zone 5, spray with antidessicant the first few Falls. 

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

American holly makes a peerless hedge, not least because the growth is impervious to deer as well as ice and snow.  Also, because hollies handle pruning so well, the hedge can be kept tight at any size—or, if you forgot to prune for twenty years, you could "prune" with a chain saw to regrow the hedge from the ground up.


Site holly hedges in full sun: You want growth to be as vigorous as possible, and you want the holly to respond to pruning quickly and enthusiastically.  Full sun is the key.


Start with plants of modest or even small size.  It's more important to plant close together, so buy more-but-smaller plants, not fewer-but-taller ones.  Ideally, plant these youngsters eighteen to twenty-four inches apart in early Spring.


If the need for quick screening is serious—and, goodness knows, that happens—plant as large plants as you can afford, as close together as you can maneuver them.  If possible, dig a trench for the plants instead of individual holes, and line the plants up ball-to-ball; it's fine to prune side branches so you can plant closer.  It's essential to plant such an instant hedge in full sun.


Holly that is balled-and-burlapped must be dug with a large ball, and that means a heavy ball.  Plants that are five feet and taller are remarkably heavy, and can be difficult or impossible to handle without heavy equipment and a crew.  Further, planting should disturb the root ball minimally, all the more reason to have all possible assistance and power equipment at the ready.  Large hollies are expensive; don't take chances with a slip-shod installation.


Holly foliage is painfully spiny; fortunately, the preferred seasons to plant—early Spring and mid-Fall—are also when you'll be wearing pants instead of shorts, and heavy long-sleeved shirts.  If you plant in the Fall, spray with antidessicant that season. 


Let newly-planted holly hedges grow free-range for a year.  Early the next Spring, or even in late Winter, begin training your plants into a hedge. 


If you planted small-sized hollies, go down the row and cut off the top half of the plant.  This takes conviction, true, and is best done quickly, before you lose it.  The goal is to encourage the young hollies to branch out as close to the ground as possible.  Let the hedge grow on its own the rest of the year.  The next Spring, just prune off the tips of the stems; let the hedge grow the rest of the year.  Don't be in a rush to have a tall hedge; as fervently and as long as you can, hold to the belief that a fat and bushy hedge is the better achievement.  Height will happen eventually no matter what you do. 


For the first five or ten years of you and your hedge's life together, prune only in early Spring.  Your young holly plants need all of their foliage about them as Winter comes on; Fall pruning inevitably makes the hollies less dense and more open, literally, to Winter-kill. 


As the hedge approaches its desired mature dimension, you can prune in mid-to-late Fall or in early Spring.  The hollies will be large enough to be fully Winter-hardy regardless of the Fall pruning, which also gives the hedge a sharp outline that's held right through Winter until growth resumes in mid-Spring. 


If you planted a "desperation" hedge of hollies that were as tall as you right from the start, you can begin pruning in Fall the second or third year after planting.

Quirks and special cases



Hollies can be troubled by all kinds of pests and diseases, but strong-growing plants are much less susceptible.  Check with local nurseries as well as your local USDA Cooperative Extension Service Office to see what American holly cultivars they recommend for your locale. 


If you have a holly hedge, you'll also need to weed under it—which, alas, isn't something that you can put off until the cold months.  Weeds need to be pulled in the moment, and certainly before they go to seed.  Weeding a holly hedge in the liquid heat of July, August, or September weather is a drag, I agree. Especially when you need to wear long sleeves so you can reach right into the hollies as you yank and swear.  You'll also need to wear long pants, because you'll be weeding under the hollies, which means that you'll need to be kneeling.  Holly leaves are just as painful when they pierce the skin in your knees.


There are about a thousand cultivars just of Ilex opaca, plus many hundreds more of the dozens of other holly species.  They vary in berry size, profusion, and color; leaf size, color, degree of glossiness, and spinyness; hardiness; and habit, which can be upright, wider, dwarfer, or denser.  Hollies of all kinds accept pruning easily, so in addition to free-standing, free-range growth, you can have terrific hedges of them.  Why don't I ever hear of espaliered holly?


But the overall look of American holly is similar enough, cultivar to cultivar, that this isn't the plant to collect extensively for regular garden usage.  Have a happy free-range specimen American holly, or a grove of the same cultivar; have a dwarf (such as 'Maryland Dwarf' or the similar 'Clarendon Spreading'); have a hedge; have 'Stewart's Silver Crown'—and you're about done.  Unless you're an arboretum or a holly fanatic, you're not likely to have more than a very few different American hollies.  So instead of the straight species, choose only among the cultivars that are of particular merit for your locale.


Oh yes:  Nearly all hollies are separately-sexed.  Unless you live where American hollies are occuring naturally in the woods, you probably need to plant a male American holly so your females get a respectable berry crop.  All the more reason, then, to plant a grove of free-range American hollies, with the lone male discreetly and respectfully at the back.  There's variety among the male hollies as well; see which are recommended for your locale.  The male doesn't have to be anything the size of the females at planting, and one male can handle a harem of females, too.  So while you need a different male for each species (and, sometimes, even each cultivar) of holly you plant, you'll only need one male American holly.  It's fine to start with a small-sized male plant, especially if that means that it's a better cultivar.




By cuttings that are started in the Fall.

Native habitat

Ilex opaca is native to the southeastern United States, from eastern Texas to northern Florida to New Jersey.

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