American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Mostly found in the moisture-rich forests of the southeastern US, this broadleaved evergreen reaches the tip of its indigenous range along the coast of Cape Cod. It grows slowly, so it is often seen as an understory shrub, especially in sandy soils like those of Cape Cod. However, in nutrient-rich soils more common to the southern parts of its range, it can grow up to 100 feet with a canopy almost 70 feet wide. Though its shade tolerance makes it prevalent in dense woods, its thick roots and salt tolerance enable it to prevent erosion and restore damaged coastlines. 


American holly’s deep green sharply pointed leaves and bright red berries make it widely cultivated for ornamental purposes in gardening and holiday decoration. Yet, it is also an important native plant: it is a larval host for Henry’s elfin butterfly and a pollinator plant for numerous insects, including bees and ants. Further, its thick canopy provides shade and protection for birds who, along with many mammal species, feed on its berries as they persist into winter. However, they are very toxic to humans, cats, and dogs.