Common Holly – Ilex aquifolium

Tree of the Week

14th December 2019 | Info

Common name: Common Holly 

Scientific name: Ilex aquifolium

Introduction: Common Holly is an evergreen tree that is native to the UK, Europe, North Africa and Western Asia. They rarely reach heights higher than 10m and have a life-span of roughly 300 years.


Leaves: Dark-green and leathery. Common holly leaves are also known for being particularly prickly/spiky. However, this more so applies to when trees are young. Young leaves also have spiny edges. As they mature, the leaves then get smoother and tend to not have as defined spines.

[Above Image: Holly leaves]

[Above Image: Variegated leaves]

Buds: Begin green, then turn red, later developing into white flowers on female trees.

Bark: Browny-grey, smooth and fine. On some/most trees the bark will also be covered in small brown ‘warts’. 

[Above Image: Holly tree bark]

Form: Small-medium sized trees that rarely reach heights above 10-15m.


Common holly trees are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers grow on separate trees. The flowers of common holly are relatively inconspicuous, white and have four flowers, typically blooming between early spring and very early summer. Once insects pollinate female flowers, they develop into bright red berries that proceed to remain on the tree throughout the winter. However, sometimes, fruit can remain green and hard.

Growth Habit:

Slow growth-rate with a life-span of 300 years. However, they do tend to thrive in most conditions.

Interesting Facts:

Common Holly is/was seen as a fertility symbol and also a charm against witches and the devil.

Ecological Importance:

All aspects of Common Holly trees provide ecological importance to wildlife. Their heavy foliage provides a nice, dense cover for birds which is ideal for nesting opportunities, with their flowers providing essential nectar and pollen for bees and other insects. Furthermore, their leaves are eaten by caterpillars of many moth species as well as caterpillars of the holly blue butterfly, and their berries provide a valuable food source for birds and mice in the winter.

Properties of Common Holly Wood and its Uses:

Holly wood is a white, hard and has a fine-grain. Due to these qualities, this makes the wood ideal for use in furniture or engraving as they are good for staining and polishing. The boughs of a Common Holly are also a popular choice of Christmas decoration.

Styling of Common Holly/Where to Find Them:

Common Holly are typically found in woodland, scrubs and hedgerows.

Associated Pests and Diseases:

Common Holly can be affected by aphids, scale insects and the holly leaf miner. They are also susceptible to Holly Leaf Blight which may cause dieback.


Pruning and Pruning Qualities: Common Holly responds well to pruning, and they are typically pruned to maintain their appearance or for gentle maintenance. Ideally, you should prune them when they are in their dormant period (between late winter and early spring). However, this can run the risk of reducing flowering buds for the next year. Despite this, it is safe for you to cut boughs of holly from your tree at Christmas for decoration purposes as December falls in the dormant period, but you must keep in mind that buds may be reduced the following year. If you want to make sure bud retention remains high, then you can opt to prune your tree in the summer once buds are starting to flower and berries are forming. If you choose to do this, then you should prune branches that are budless and prune as early in summer as you can to reduce diseases that may attack the tree through pruning cuts during autumn. General pruning typically envolves removing congested/crossover branches to help increase airflow. 

Growth Rate after Pruning: Can cause flowering buds to be reduced the following year if pruned in its dormant period.

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