English Holly vs. American Holly: What’s the Difference?

Written by Em Casalena
Updated: November 17, 2022
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It is exceedingly challenging to distinguish between American and English Hollies. They belong to the same genus, but despite their striking resemblance, they are two very different species. One might read that English hollies have glossier leaves than the American version from every source you consult about hollies. That is alright if you compare them side by side, but “glossy” is a highly individualized quality. Even up close, it can be very challenging to distinguish between these two plants’ glossiness levels. It also doesn’t help that the majority of physical descriptors online for these two plants are very similar.

So what can an amateur horticulturist or Christmas tree lover do to tell the difference between these two plants? In this guide, we’ll break down every key difference between the English holly and the American holly, so you can tell them apart when searching for a Christmas tree or so you can make a more informed decision on which is the better tree to plant.

Comparing English Holly vs. American Holly

English HollyAmerican Holly
ClassificationIlex aquifoliumIlex opaca
Alternative NamesChristmas Holly, European Holly, WinterberryInkberry, Oregon Holly
OriginEurope, Western Asia, Northern AfricaUnited States
DescriptionAn ornamental evergreen tree that can grow into a large hedge.An ornamental evergreen tree that can reach 60 feet in height and boasts a cone-like shape.
UsesLandscaping, woodworking, is also used for Christmas decorations.Landscaping, is sometimes used for Christmas decorations, though this plant is poisonous to humans.
Growth TipsRequires pruning to maintain its appearance and does not do well with poor soil drainage.Requires neutral soil with excellent drainage in order to maintain its color.
Interesting FeaturesBoasts strong wood that can be used to make cabinets and similar furnishings.Boasts poisonous fruit and is considered highly flammable.

The Key Differences Between English Holly and American Holly

Both the English and American hollies share many characteristics. Both of these holly species have very pointed, thorn-like spines on the edges of their leaves. They are both regarded as evergreen trees and have a comparable shape when fully grown.

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The English holly species has lower growth potential than the American holly, with a maximum height of about 35 feet. The southeast region of the United States has high heat and heavy soils that are not conducive to English holly, which is less hardy than American holly. English hollies have softer, more vulnerable spines than their American counterparts.

Unlike the American holly’s larger, duller, non-glossy leaf, the English holly has spiky, glossy leaves. Glossiness, however, is not the greatest technique to differentiate between these two species, as we previously stated. Additionally, they have fruits that are normally in clusters but can occasionally be solitary and are generated in the growth axils of the previous season. The fruits on the American holly are duller. Just as well, the English holly has a richer, deeper green leaf hue while the American holly has lighter, almost yellowish leaves.

English Holly vs. American Holly: Classification

The English holly and American holly are different species from one another but share the same genus, ilex. This genus contains over 570 different species of hollies, making both of these trees closely related to plants such as the winterberry, Chinese holly, Japanese holly, and Carolina holly. The English holly is classified as ilex aquifolium. The American holly is classified as ilex opaca.

A close-up of the red berries and green leaves of the English holly.

English holly (pictured) like American holly is often used for landscaping and Christmas decor.

©Stephen William Robinson/Shutterstock.com

English Holly vs. American Holly: Description

The English holly is an evergreen tree with a thick conical growth of small branches. It can reach heights of 35 to 50 feet and a diameter of almost two feet. The leaves are round, leathery, lustrous dark green above and paler below, with spiky points and wavy margins.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed is home to the evergreen American holly tree. Bright red berries are produced on the branches of female plants. Smooth and light white-grey in hue, the bark is. The green, leathery leaves of this plant have spine tips. In the warmest regions of its distribution, American holly, sometimes known as Christmas holly, grows up to 60 feet tall.

English Holly vs. American Holly: Uses

Both American and English hollies are utilized as decorative Christmas greens. Both of them are placed as ornamental trees around residential homes. They are well-liked in regions with chilly, snowy winters since they are fairly hardy in that season. Both English and American hollies can be used as hedges and as privacy screens.

The wood from American and English hollies is also utilized for other purposes. The wood from English holly can be used to create handles, inlays, and other small objects. Similar uses for American holly wood include handles, piano keys, and furniture.

Additionally, holly leaves from other holly species and the American holly are used to produce medication. Some Native American tribes utilized American holly fruit tea as a heart stimulant. However, both the English and American hollies are regarded as having a low level of poisonousness. The fruit of the English holly contains saponins that, in high amounts, can be toxic. The fruits of the American holly contain illicin, which can cause nausea and vomiting in high amounts.

A Carolina Chickadee perching on an American Holly in Louisiana.

American holly enjoys both sun and partially shaded environments.

©Bonnie Taylor Barry/Shutterstock.com

English Holly vs. American Holly: Origin

English holly is native to Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. It is one of the very few natural hardwood evergreen trees in the British Isles. English holly has a long history of being connected to Christmas and, earlier, the Roman holiday of Saturnalia.

American holly is a native of the eastern and central United States. It can be found in some coastal dunes as well as damp forests, forest bottomlands, and swamp edges. Because it is the only native American holly with prickly green foliage and brilliant red berries, this species is easy to recognize in the wild.

English Holly vs. American Holly: How to Grow

English Holly is not the best choice if you want a shrub that will grow quickly in your landscape. This shrub grows slowly. However, once planted, it can survive for many years in the ideal location with little care. English holly tolerates a wide range of soil types, however, it dislikes temperature extremes. This shrub is susceptible to being killed or damaged by both extreme heat and cold. English holly may survive in complete shade but grows best in full sun or light shade. The main requirement for English holly is well-drained soil so that its roots do not constantly remain moist. English holly is not picky about the type of soil. The best growth will be stimulated by acidic soil.

Although American holly may grow in a variety of soil types, it cannot survive alkaline soil or soil that is thick and poorly drained. However, provided your soil is well-drained and acidifiable, this plant will thrive in almost any sunny or partially shaded situation. Although the plant typically loses density in shaded areas, in hot southern climates, it prefers a few hours of afternoon shade. Plant American holly in chilly regions where it will have some protection from winter winds. Give this plant acidic, well-drained soil. If necessary, add acidifying amendments to the soil, or be ready to give it regular feedings of an acidifying fertilizer.

English Holly vs. American Holly: Special Features

English holly rarely lives past 100 years but has a staggering maximum lifespan of 500 years. It typically grows on well-drained soils in scrub, hedges, and woodlands where it frequently dominates the understory. This particular shrub is known as Christmas holly in Europe. It can either be clipped and trained into a 10 or 15-foot hedge or allowed to grow to its full height. It is always in leaf, blooms in the spring, and has seeds that ripen from November to March. It is also not frost-sensitive. The species is dioecious, which means that each bloom can be either male or female. However, only one sex can be found on a single plant, thus it is necessary to produce both male and female plants if the berries, which provide interest in the winter, are wanted. Bees fertilize the plant, which is not self-fertile.

In moist deciduous woods in the central and southeastern United States, the American holly is typically found growing as an understory tree or shrub. Bright red or orange fruit matures in the fall and lasts throughout the winter on female specimens that are pollinated by a male plant. The Goldie and Jersey Princess cultivars are just two of the many that American holly has produced. Due to its high flammability rating, this plant shouldn’t be grown inside your home’s defensible area.

When it comes down to it, English hollies and American hollies are very similar. If you want a plant that can grow in the south and can handle hot summers, opt for the American holly. If you want a lovely evergreen Christmas tree that doesn’t get too massive, opt for the English holly. Either way, you’ll have a classic holly tree that will look fantastic in your yard or in your living room at Christmastime.

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © Bonnie Taylor Barry/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Em Casalena is a writer at A-Z Animals where their primary focus is on plants, gardening, and sustainability. Em has been writing and researching about plants for nearly a decade and is a proud Southwest Institute of Healing Arts graduate and certified Urban Farming instructor. Em is a resident of Arizona and enjoys learning about eco-conscious living, thrifting at local shops, and caring for their Siamese cat Vladimir.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Is the English holly smaller than the American holly?

Yes. The English holly reaches about 35 feet, while the American holly reaches 50 feet in ideal growing conditions.

Is the American holly better than the English holly?

The American holly is better for those who want a larger tree for landscaping purposes. The English holy is better for those who want a tree with richer, darker foliage.

Is the American holly hardier than the English holly?

In general, the American holly is hardier than the English holly, as the latter cannot tolerate heat or very heavy soil.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

  1. North Carolina State University, Available here: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/ilex-opaca/
  2. North Carolina State University, Available here: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/ilex-aquifolium/