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American Holly, the Delaware State Tree.

The American Holly (Ilex opaca) is considered one of the most popular trees in the world. The tree is ridiculously tough and is widely known as the hardiest broadleaf evergreen. Native specimens found throughout the Appalachian Mountains have withstood temperatures of -10°F. The tree is also not picky in terms of soil requirements and will grow in nearly all soils. This fact is evident given that its native range extends from Massachusetts to Florida and west to Texas. American Hollies grow on mountain tops, in river valleys, on flood plains, and along coastlines. The tree has a slow to medium growth rate.

“The American holly has deep roots in the State of Delaware. On May 1, 1939, the Senate and House of representatives of the State of Delaware passed a bill adopting the American holly as the State Tree. The American holly is also known as the Christmas holly and was highly sought after during the Christmas holidays.

In Delaware around the 1890s, an entrepreneur, William Buell of Farmington and later, Milford, sent 500 cases of holly to Chicago. John T. Watson of Georgetown, Buell’s assistant and a merchant, is credited with making the first official holly wreath in Delaware. Thereafter, many others realized they had cheap and plentiful Christmas decorations in their backyards, and thus the holly industry was created. The height of the industry was in the 1930s and early 1940s with Delaware recognized as a leading national producer of holly wreaths. Milton, Bridgeville, Georgetown, Millsboro, and Selbyville were all booming holly towns. It is esti-mated, from a 1934 report, that some 8,500 people were employed by the holly industry in some way. In the hayday of the industry, the Pennsylvania Railroad scheduled a special train, “The Holly Express,” to pickup the packaged holly products, loading from Delmar to Wilmington.”

From “Beneath the Canopy” by Bob Tjaden, former Delaware State Forester.

The tree reproduces the "old fashioned way;" male and female flowers are produced on separate plants (dioecious reproduction). A male pollinator must be nearby in order to produce the beautiful red berries we are all familiar with on female trees. The male and female flowers are staminate in 3 to 9 flowered cymes; pistillate solitary; male flowers are dull white with yellow pollen tipped anthers; males are about the latest evergreen holly to flower around May.

Henry's Elfin butterfly

Female flowers are dull white to yellow with a single green nodule (ovary and future berry) at the center. Female flowers have 4 non-functional stamens. The flowers are pollinated by insects, including bees, wasps, ants, and night-flying moths.

It is a larval host plant for the uncommon Henry’s Elfin butterfly (Callophrys henrici).

Throughout history, the appeal of bright red berries and lusterous evergreen leaves drove the popularity of the English Holly. From the Roman and Druid winter solstice traditions to the eventual European Christian traditions, the symbolism and colorful nature of the evergreen holly in the dead of winter was constant. It is little wonder that when the European colonists landed in the New World, they brought their love of holly, among their many other traditions.

American holly leaves.

American Holly leaves had been used by Native Americans to make tea to treat cough, and berries had been used to make buttons. But Europeans brought demand for American Holly to a whole new level. They recognized American Holly as an obvious substitute for their English holly (Ilex aquifolium) holiday traditions, and decorative and landscape usage soon exploded. Today the popularity of the American Holly is as strong as ever.

American holly leaves

The leaves are alternate, simple, evergreen, elliptic, and 1.5-3.5" long and half as wide. With remote spiny teeth, the leaves are dull to dark yellow green and have great variation among trees.

Early American holly drupe (berries).

Berry-like, dull red rounded drupe, fruit is borne singly on 1/4" long stalks, maturing in October and persisting into winter. Fruit display can be spectacular on good selections with a strong pollinator. The berries are poisonous to dogs, cats, and humans, often causing diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, and drowsiness if ingested.

Any quesses where at Abbotts Mill Nature Center this picture of an American holly was taken?

The trees can grow 40 to 50' in height with a spread of 18 to 40'; usually smaller.

15 to 30' in height is more reasonable under normal landscape conditions. Slow growing, American hollies take a long time to get where they’re going. The Delaware champion American holly is at 302 Clinton St., in Delaware City, stands 60 feet tall and has a circumference of 121 inches, equaling a diameter of about 38 ½ inches.

The American holly species is affected by many problems including holly leaf miner, bud moth, scales, beetles, whitefly, berry midge, southern red mite, tar spot, leaf spots, cankers, bacterial blight, twig die back, spot anthracnose, leaf rot, leaf drop, powdery mildews, spine spot (nonparasitic) and leaf scorch (physiological); leaf miner and scale are particularly troublesome.

Due to its shade tolerance, American holly typically grows as an understory tree in moist forests of the east-central, southeastern, and south-central United States. It is found in sparse numbers in the northern part of its range from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, south to northern New Jersey (including southern Connecticut and southeastern New York, on Long Island). It is abundant further south on the Gulf and Atlantic lowlands and will grow in both dry and swampy soil.

Frost covered winter holly leaves (2-2-2022)

The tree also forms a thick canopy which offers protection for birds from predators and storms. Songbirds including thrushes, mockingbirds, catbirds, bluebirds and thrashers, as well as some gamebirds and mammals frequently feed on the berries.

The wood is very pale, tough, close-grained, takes a good polish, and was once used for whip-handles and engraving blocks. It is still widely used in cabinet work and can also be dyed and used as a substitute for ebony. The sap is watery, and contains a bitter substance once used as an herbal tonic. Leaves from the American holly can be used to make a tea-like beverage, which does not contain caffeine.

Sources: Adapted from


Ode: To Trees

You giants, you dwarves; you leaners, you poles; you gnarled fists, you saplings with two leaves; you bare harbingers of cold, you budding heralds of green . . . I sing your praise.

You earth holders, you soil protectors; you bird sanctuaries, you shelters for the deer; you child dandlers (I’ve seen you bounce them up and down); you kite snaggers, you window scratchers and nightmare screechers making children cry . . . I sing your praise.

You tightropes for snow, you drinkers of rain; you gossipers in wind, you blurs in the fog; you dancers always stretching, always limbering up but not dancing; you watchers, you waiters, you accommodaters (I’ve seen you bend over backwards): you power- line breakers forcing us to pleasure: candles, oil lamps and rare silences in the muffling dark . . . I sing your praise.

You crow perches, you squirrel parapets; you needle and leaf shedders; you stream cloggers, you ground matters, you liners of nests; you woodpecker feeders, you air purifiers, you sap yielders; you nut and pine cone droppers, you bark bearers; you thicket makers, you shade givers . . . I sing your praise.

You white oaks, you paper birches, you sugar maples; you aspen, you beech; you scotch pine, blue spruce, and balsam fir; you walnut, sweet crab apple, and black cherry; you lilac, you flowering dogwood, you horse chestnut; you ash, you locust, you elm; you weeping willow . . . you trees . . . I sing your praise.

copyright © 2005 by Douglas Woodsum


Have you been for a walk in the woods lately and wondered, "What is that wonderfully sweet smell?"

Likely you were near some Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), also known as Coastal Pepperbush and Summersweet. “Pepperbush” refers to the vague resemblance of its fruits to peppercorns.

Pepperbush is a shrub that grows from rhizomes and has stems from 6 feet to as much as 9 feet tall. This time of the year very fragrant clusters of flowers form on erect stalks about 5-6 inches long. They are a favorite of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

Sweet Pepperbush doesn’t mind having wet feet and makes an excellent choice for a shrub border along streams, or in low or acidic swampy areas.

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