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Holly is a tree of many surprises. While most are very small trees, some can grow to 50 feet or more in height and take their place in many an eastern forest. And although 15 species of holly trees and shrubs are native to the United States, all in the east and south, people across the country prize the boughs of American holly as a favorite Christmas decoration.

Holly’s Place in History

The holly has been distinguished in many ways, including by being a favorite of George Washington. More than a dozen hollies planted by Washington are still standing today. And others besides the country's founding president have long valued this little tree, with its very hard, pale wood being the choice for inlays in fine musical instruments and furniture. Perhaps more than for any other reason, the distinctive leaves of this tree have made it an American favorite. For many, its prickly edged, dark green leaves and bright red berries symbolize Christmas. The American holly is a tree loved by many for its great practical and aesthetic bounty.

Some Common Species

American holly is unique in a variety of ways. Although to many it is associated with Christmas boughs and the winter season, it is a favorite in the American Southeast, with a natural range extending from Massachusetts to Florida and west to Missouri and Texas. It also can be successfully grown throughout much of the rest of the United States.

While Americans often picture its branches festooned with holiday ribbons, the tree can grow from 40 to 50 feet in height, with co-national champions measuring 74 feet tall with a 48-foot crown spread, in Chambers, Alabama, and 55 feet by 51 feet, in Buckingham County, Virginia. To add to its uniqueness, this pyramid-shaped tree is both broad-leaved and evergreen. (Grows in hardiness zones 5 to 9.)

Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) is a small tree, usually no taller than 25 feet, that takes its name from the toxicity of its leaves, which were used by Native Americans to make a tea to induce vomiting and cleanse the body. Yaupon is native to the Southeast, growing naturally from Florida to Oklahoma. This holly makes a striking addition to a suitable landscape arrangement, with its attractive gray bark, irregular form, and multi-stemmed growth. (Grows in hardiness zones 7 to 10.)

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