Add interest, beauty to any landscape
with versatile tree

by Beth Ellis, Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Gardeners' Dirt

LEFT:  The yaupon holly is native to this area and can be found in tall, shrub-like and dwarf, hedge-like varieties. The taller tree has red berries from late fall to winter.
RIGHT:  Yaupons produce an abundance of berries and provide a natural habitat for local wildlife.
This Possumhaw Holly is a taller, deciduous variety that produces a profusion of berries in the fall.
Possumhaw berries remain on bare limbs into the winter, providing fodder for birds, after all the leaves have fallen from the tree.
LEFT: The Burford holly comes in both tall and compact, dwarf varieties that can be sheared into a handsome hedge.
RIGHT:  Burford hollies have shiny, green leaves and berries this time of year. They thrive locally and are drought tolerant, but can be shocked from sudden, extreme cold temperatures.
Of all the trees that are in the woods, the Holly bears the crown ~ Beth Ellis

Nothing is more beautiful on a cold winter's day than a brilliantly-adorned holly tree standing silent vigil in the woods. Surrounded by the bare, dark branches of trees that have chosen to retreat into arboreal sleep during winter's reign, the red berries of the holly tree valiantly light up the forest to remind us that even through the darkest days of winter, life goes on.


Long before Christianity took hold in the damp forests of Europe, boughs of holly decorated the homes of the Britons and Celts during dark winter months. These ancient peoples were acutely aware of the division of the year as marked by the winter and summer solstices. For them, the "Holly King" represented the waning half of the year, when the red-berried, evergreen holly reigned over the leafless trees of the forest, and the "Oak King" represented the waxing half of the year, when the deciduous oak was clothed in its full verdant glory. The Britons and Celts certainly weren't alone in using holly as winter decoration. The Romans hung wreaths and swags of holly while celebrating the winter festival known as Saturnalia, and as Christianity came to the fore, the red berries of the holly came to represent the blood of Christ, while the prickly leaves became associated with the crown of thorns.


There are three types of hollies that do best around Victoria - yaupon holly, possumhaw holly and Burford holly.

Yaupon holly - Of the three, the native evergreen Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is the hardiest and best adapted for use by area wildlife. Ranging in height from 10 to 20 feet, yaupons will tolerate just about any soil type, can grow in sun or shade, and are highly heat and drought tolerant once established. Shrubby if left alone, they can be pruned into single or multiple trunk trees for use in the landscape. The trunks are covered with attractive gray bark that adds to the overall visual effectiveness of this tree.

Female trees produce attractive yellow, orange and red berries, which are relished by birds during winter months, and the dense evergreen canopies provide excellent wildlife protection not only in winter, but also during the warm months. Male yaupons must be present so that pollination and consequent berry and seed production by females can take place. The dwarf form of this plant generally does not produce berries, but it is excellent for use in small hedges or as foundation plantings. Native Americans used a black tea made from yaupon berries as a purgative - which explains the interesting scientific name.

Possumhaw holly - The common name for this tree stems from the similar appearance the berries have to the fruits of hawthorn trees, which possums apparently love to eat. Unlike yaupons, the possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua) is deciduous, but don't make the mistake of thinking that the show ends when the possumhaw drops its leaves - because that's when the show really begins. Each fall, possumhaws produce a profusion of berries that remain on the bare branches of the female trees during the winter months, providing rich winter fodder for hungry birds. Like yaupons, a male plant must be in the vicinity to insure berry/seed production by females. Possumhaws are not very picky when it comes to soil, and they are very heat tolerant - but they like a bit more water than yaupons. They generally grow from about 8 to 12 feet in height. For best berry production, plant possumhaws in full sun.

Burford holly - The Burford holly (Ilex cornuta) is a non-native holly with glossy green leaves and shiny berries that comes in both tall (10-15 feet) and dwarf (5-6 feet) forms, both of which can be sheared into hedges. Popular dwarf varieties include Nana and Sizzler. Female Burfords do not require the presence of a male tree to produce berries, but if one is nearby the berry production will be more bountiful. Burfords can be grown in a wide variety of soils, and after establishment will become somewhat drought tolerant, although they demand more water than yaupons or possumhaws.

One thing to beware of is that Burfords can be sensitive to temperature changes brought on by extremely cold "blue northers." Interestingly, it's not the cold itself that causes the problem - it's the suddenness of the temperature transition. If temperatures drop very quickly, the trees do not have time to harden off and will suffer shock damage. Victoria is far enough south to make extreme temperature drops a rarity, but it is a factor to be considered when choosing hollies for landscaping in this area.

Other hollies
- While there are many other holly varieties in existence, they prefer the acid soils, dappled shade and high moisture levels found along stream banks in places like East Texas. As such, they are not the best choices for our area.


Steeped in lore and legend, radiant in the winter landscape, and a haven for wildlife, hollies add interest and beauty to any landscape. Those that are adapted to our area are versatile enough to be used as hedges or as specimen plants, they look good in any season, and they are hardy in regards to soil type, drought conditions and high heat. So, go ahead and plant hollies in your yard and enjoy them year-round.
Yaupon - Native evergreen; best adapted for area wildlife; female large variety produces yellow, orange and red berries; dwarf form does not produce berries but is great for hedges and foundation plantings.

Possumhaw - Deciduous tree; named for resemblance to hawthorn tree berries eaten by possums; produces lots of berries in full sun after leaves fall.

Burford - Non-native tree with glossy, green leaves and shiny berries; comes in tall and dwarf varieties, which make nice hedges; sensitive to sudden, extremely cold conditions.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:   Search for "holly"
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at