What is a Holly Shrub?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

A holly shrub is a type of bush from the family Aquifoliaceae and exists in several hundred variations throughout the world. Holly is an ancient plant with many symbolic meanings, and is often associated with Christmas in some parts of the world. Holly shrubs are ornamental plants that are frequently pruned and shaped for use as hedges, although some gardeners prefer them as individual plants.

Figgy pudding decorated with holly.
Figgy pudding decorated with holly.

Although there are over 600 species of holly shrub in the world, many feature green or green and white spiky leaves, small white blossoms, and a striking red berry. The leaves of some varieties are used in tea, but the berries contain a mildly toxic poison and should not be ingested by people or animals. Be sure to keep children and pets away from any holly shrub in a garden, as the berries can be dangerous if eaten in large quantities.

Many types of holly are dense and spiky, thus gaining great value as a protective hedge. Many species of holly shrub are extremely long-lived and provide a formidable barrier throughout the year. In order to create the midwinter blooming berries, both male and female shrubs need to be planted together. Plantings can take three to five years to grow into a usable hedge, and are considered extremely hardy.

Although there are variations depending on the variety of holly, many require a good amount of sunshine and light shade to flourish. Some horticulturists warn of planting a holly shrub in areas where winter temperatures vary greatly during the day and night; if the day is warm, the leaves will open up and lose moisture, which will result in plants drying out and dying if night temperatures are too cold.

Some species of holly can grow to the size of trees, so occasional pruning is required to keep a holly shrub or bush proportional. Experts recommend disturbing the root system as little as possible, as established plants do not react well to being moved. Depending on the type of holly shrub, leaves may be pure green, or be tipped and veined with silver or gold. Holly is an evergreen plant, which means that it will retain its rich color throughout the year.

Holly is typically associated with Christmas, but the holly shrub has been celebrated in winter festivals long before the Christian tradition began. Druid and ancient Celtic traditions believe the shrub protects against poison and lightning, and yule celebrations involved making shelters for visiting spirits by bringing holly into the house. The holly shrub is celebrated in several traditional Christmas songs and stories and makes a beautiful seasonal decoration in any home.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


Well, I know that holly trees and shrubs are used a lot in landscaping because they are quite pretty from a distance. But all I can do is shiver when I think of having them in my own yard. When I was a kid, we had tons of holly bushes at our school and it was the bully’s custom to push we smaller children into the holly whenever he felt the need to exert some power. Yow! Those things do hurt. Of course, I think a non-prickly kind might rub off on me, but for now my yard is holly-free.


@MrMoody – Yes, I love my holly trees for just this very reason! They are so easy to take care of, even for those of us who may not be gardeners extraordinaire. I also like the coverage that they give, and that they are green year round. It makes for a nice bit of privacy and color in the yard all of the time.


I love our holly shrub plants! I don’t have the proverbial “green thumb” but lately I’ve had to take to doing some landscaping around our new house. Some of the plants in front of the house had died because of improper care from the prior owner. I went ahead and dug them out—I don’t even know what kind they were—and then off I went to the local nursery to look for some new varieties to plant.

I settled on the Yaupon Holly Shrub—one of several holly shrub varieties—and used them to plant a new hedge around the front of the house. This plant grows to between 3 to 8 feet, is low maintenance, and requires little pruning. It’s perfect for someone like me who is new to landscaping.

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