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Native Tree of the Year

Adkins Arboretum’s Native Tree of the Year Program highlights the ecological and ornamental value of native trees to promote their protection in natural areas and use in cultivated landscapes.

2024 Native Tree of the Year: American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Growing throughout the upland forest, slope forest, and floodplain forest plant communities at Adkins Arboretum, this understory tree is quite easy to spot throughout winter, early spring, and late fall with its broad-leaved evergreen foliage and red berries that are present on the female plants.  Tiny, creamy white blooms can be found on male and female plants in late spring.  While blooming, male American holly trees can be distinguished by their clusters of 3-10 flowers, while the female trees normally have solitary flowers.  Reaching heights of 20–30’ at maturity, this tree is covered with thick, shiny, evergreen leaves with spines along the edges that persist for 2-3 years before being replaced by new growth.  

Native throughout the mid-Atlantic and southeastern U.S., this species is prized for woodworking, with its close-grained wood used for furniture and other detailed work.  Also used extensively for holiday wreaths and other decorations, this species is the state tree of Delaware based on the state’s historically abundant export of these products.

Many types of wildlife make good use of the American holly!  The dense foliage provides ideal shelter for birds.  Many types of birds,  including thrushes, mockingbirds, catbirds, and thrashers, and some mammals will eat the fruits.  In our area, approximately 46 species of butterflies and moths are hosted by this tree, including larvae of the Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus), the Io moth (Automeris io), and the Laurel sphinx (Sphinx kalmiae).  Pollinators such as native bees, bumblebees, honey bees, beetles, wasps, flies, and butterflies visit the American holly’s flowers.

If you add this species to your garden, it will do best in a location with moist but well-drained soils and shelter from extreme weather. Please note that the berries are toxic to people and pets and should not be ingested. Pests and diseases are minimal, with leaf miner larvae most commonly seen consuming tiny trails through the leaves. Fortunately, this species is not a favorite of deer.

Trees previously named Adkins Arboretum Native Tree of the Year include Fagus americana (American beech, 2014), Cercis canadensis (Eastern redbud, 2015), Juniperus virginiana (Eastern red cedar, 2016), Sassafras albidum (Sassafras, 2018), Asimina triloba (paw paw, 2020), Taxodium distichum (bald cypress, 2021), Diospyros virginiana (Common persimmon, 2022), and Carpinus caroliniana (American hornbeam, 2023).


Leslie Cario

Photo: Mickey Pullen