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 Featured Plants - Florida's Hollies
 

Florida has 11 natives species of Holly (Ilex). Hollies are found in almost every plant community from coastal scrub, tropical hammocks, pine flatwoods to river floodplains. The hollies are unusual in that they are either male or female. Male hollies are often overlooked as they can be confused with other alternately leaved woody plants. The flowers of some species such as Ilex glabra are important honey plants. The fruit of hollies are distinctive and often showy. When most people think of hollies they may automatically envision the evergreen American holly (I. opaca) with its red fruit and spiny leaves. This species is the ubiquitous "holly" of the Christmas holiday season. Every county in Florida has a species of holly, but the most wide spread of all the native species is dahoon holly (I. cassine) which is found throughout the state, even south into the Florida Keys. If dahoon holly is the most widespread, gallberry (Ilex glabra) is the most common as it is native to Florida's extensive pine flatwoods. This species along with several other groundcover species is adapted to the rather frequent ground fires that historically swept across Florida's pinelands during the summer thunderstorm season. This landscape of scattered pines with a dense groundcover including gallberry is one of the most common landscapes in Florida.

The following is a key to the Florida species (adapted from Radford, et. al, 1964; Long and Lakela, 1971 and Wunderlin, 1982).


Leaves thin, membranous
   Leaves evergreen, entire or rarely denticulate, fruit dull purplish
      to black, plants of south Florida only ..... Ilex krugiana
   Leaves deciduous
      Leaves pubescent on most of the upper surface, margins serrate
         Leaf blades elliptic with a rounded leaf base, 6-9 cm long
            ..... Ilex amelanchier
      Leaves smooth on the upper surface, margins crenate to serrate
         Leaf blades oblanceolate to ovate, 2-6 cm long, margins crenate
            ..... Ilex decidua
         Leaf blades elliptic to ovate, margins serrate to crenate
            Leaves with conspicuous veins, flowers and fruit appear singly or
               in clusters up to 3, in the leaf axils
               ..... Ilex verticillata
            Leaves without conspicuous veins, flowers and fruit appear
               clustered from spur shoots ..... Ilex ambigua
         
Leaves coriaceous, evergreen
    Fruit red to yellow
       Leaf blade with sharp pointed teeth, these are usually regularly
          spaced ..... Ilex opaca
          Leaf blade entire, crenate or serrulate
             Leaf blades with a rounded apex ..... Ilex vomitoria
          Leaf blades with a sharp, pointed apex
             Leaf blades 1-4 cm long and usually less than 1.5 cm wide,
                margins entire, tip sharp pointed ..... Ilex myrtifolia
             Leaf blades generally longer than 4 cm and wider than 2 cm,
                may have a few teeth at the tip or with a single sharp
                point ..... Ilex cassine
    Fruit black 
       Leaves crenate, leaves often cupped, 3-5 cm long
          ..... Ilex glabra
       Leaves with a few small teeth, leaves somewhat cupped, 4-7 cm long
          ..... Ilex coriacea

For additional reading about Florida holly species see the following references:

  • Native Trees and Shrubs of the Florida Keys. Scurlock, J. Paul. 1987. Laurel Press, Inc. 1514 Holly Hill Drive, Bethel Park, PA 15102.
  • A Flora of Tropical Florida. Long, R. W. and O. Lakela. 1971. University of Miami Press.
  • Guide to the Vascular Plants of the Florida Panhandle. Clewell, Andre F. 1985. Florida State University Press.
  • Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of Northern Florida and Adjacent Georgia and Alabama. Godfrey, Robert K. 1988. The University of Georgia Press.
  • The Shrubs & Woody Vines of Florida. Nelson, Gil. 1996. Pineapple Press, Inc. Sarasota, FL.
  • The Trees of Florida. Nelson, Gil. 1994. Pineapple Press, Inc. Sarasota, FL.

Hollies are found in a variety of Florida wetlands.

Description Images

Easily our most widely distributed wetland species is dahoon holly (Ilex cassine L.), OBL. This species is common in freshwater swamps, interdunal swales and a variety of depression and seepage wetlands as well as along streams, ponds, and lakes.

Photo©  by John D. Tobe

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dahoon holly plant

Sarvis holly (Ilex amelanchier M. A. Curtis), OBL, may well be our rarest species with a limited distribution along small blackwater streams and rivers of northwest Florida. Here it grows as a member of the subcanopy beneath Atlantic white cedar, ogechee lime, red maple and bald cypress. It is a difficult plant to locate when not in fruit, especially after losing its leaves.

Photo by Gail Sloane

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sarvis holly plant

Possum haw (Ilex decidua Walter), FACW, is a locally common small deciduous subcanopy tree or shrub, found on riverine floodplains often associated with water tupelo, overcup oak, bald cypress, sycamore and hackberry. This is another species that is often overlooked, especially when not in fruit.

Photo©  by John D. Tobe

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possum haw plant

Large gallberry (Ilex coriacea (Pursh) Chapman), FACW, and gallberry (Ilex glabra (L.) Gray), UPLAND, are evergreen shrubs found in ecotones along sloughs and depressions. Ilex glabra is also abundant in pine flatwoods along with saw palmetto. Gallberry has a wide range of moisture tolerance, from the wet savannas to scrubby pine flatwoods.

Photo©  by John D. Tobe

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large gallberry plantgallberry plant

Myrtle-leaf holly (Ilex myrtifolia Walter), OBL, is a small tree with whitish bark and conspicuous warty outgrowths toward the base of the plant. The very small leaves of this species make the often abundant berries very conspicuous. Myrtle-leaf hollies are often picturesque, dwarf trees with gnarled stems and swollen trunks. This is most obvious when the trees are growing in small groves in the center of depression wetlands.

Photo© by John D. Tobe

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Myrtle-leaf holly plant

American holly (Ilex opaca Ait.), FAC, is an evergreen tree or shrub with sharp toothed leaves. Young plants are pyramidal in growth form. This is the holly historically associated with Christmas decorations. The fruit is red and persistent until eaten by birds. This species is common in the rich wooded hills and river floodplains of north Florida and is often cultivated as a specimen plant.

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American holly plant

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata (L.) Gray), OBL, is a northern species reaching its southernmost limit in Florida. In Florida, it is a rare species found only along streams and bogs in northern part of the state. Winterberry is a deciduous shrub with thin leaves and bright red fruit. Plants are conspicuous in winter hence the common name.

Photo©  by John D. Tobe

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Winterberry plant

Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria Ait.), FAC, is a common evergreen shrub found in dry to wet woods in north and central Florida. These plants may become dominant components of coastal systems often forming islands in coastal saltmarsh and coastal pine flatwoods. A ruderal species that is spread by birds, look for fruiting plants during the cooler months especially along roadsides in north Florida. The stems are stiff and sometime dense and this species has been selected for landscape use with weeping forms and compact dwarf forms.

Photo©  by John D. Tobe

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Yaupon holly plant


All of the species mentioned above (nine of the eleven Florida species) are illustrated in Florida Wetland Plants: An Identification Manual

Last updated: September 21, 2011

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