Evergreen holly with blue-green background and red berries.  Holly Berries:  How to Guarantee Berries on Your Holly

Holly Berries – How to Guarantee Berries on your Holly

Berries brighten holiday decor, much like holiday lights. Bright red berries tucked in glossy, evergreen foliage or standing alone in stark contrast to a tan stem. Nothing says holiday like holly berries.

But the abundant berries don’t just appear on their own. Winter may be the time of year that we adore our holly, but spring is the time when all the magic happens. We’re talking about the birds and the bees.

Years ago, I had a ‘Red Sprite’ Holly in my garden. She was lonely and didn’t once produce berries. Being that I lacked space for the much needed male holly, I would bring home from work a ‘Jim Dandy’ Holly for a week of apparent fun. Lo and behold! I was rewarded every winter with baby berries.

This little trick probably won’t work for anyone who isn’t in the plant industry. But, it is a reminder that if you enjoy those red berries on your holly, outdoors or in, you need to be prepared to plant more than one.

Here’s what you need to know when shopping for holly.

Large red berries on Winterberry (deciduous) holly.

Do all holly require male and female plants?

Yes, almost always.

Holly is Dioecious. Dioecious means that they belong to a group of plants that have both male and female flowers.  This means that a male plant is necessary to produce berries on the female.

There are some hollies, however, that do not require a male to produce berries.  Hollies such as ‘Nellie Stevens’ (Ilex x) and ‘Burfordii’ (Ilex cornuta) are both considered parthenocarpic.  Parthenocarpic is based on the Greek words parthenos, meaning virgin, and karpos, meaning fruit.  They are self-pollinating, and only a female plant is needed to have berries.

So in answer to the original question – yes, most every female holly will require a male holly to produce berries.

Red berries cover the blue-green evergreen foliage of Blue Princess Holly.
Photo Courtesy of Monrovia

Why did the garden center tell me my ‘Royal Family’ holly is self-pollinating?

Companies have begun planting male and female plants in the same container. This eliminates the need to purchase a male plant and also allows for every plant to have berries.

So, while these shrubs may be touted as being self-pollinating, these hollies technically still have the male and female plants.

Two of the most common are Royal Family (Ilex x meserveae ‘Blue Prince’ & ‘Blue Princess’) and China Dynasty (Ilex x meserveae ‘China Boy’ & ‘China Girl’).

How do I tell the difference between male and female holly plants?

If you have holly in your landscape but have never experienced the lovely berries, you likely have all females or all males. Before you pull them out and replace them with new though, you can identify male and female plants by the flowers.

All holly flowers produce four petals. Inside those petals will be your gender indicator.

Male holly will have four stamens that support the anthers or pollen sacks. These contain sticky, yellow pollen.

Flowers on holly plants showing the female green 'berry' and the four stamens on the male plant.
Photo Courtesy of Walter Reeves

Female holly, in turn, produces what appears to be a green berry in the center of the four petals. This ‘berry’ contains the receptor for the pollen.  When pollination does not occur, the female will drop its blossoms and not produce berries.

How do I know what male holly will pollinate my female holly?

The male plant of the same species will often be the best pollinizer.  But, when in doubt, here’s a handy cheat sheet for some of  the more common holly planted in the St. Louis area.

Holly pollinizer chart by Baxter Gardens recommending what male holly to use to get berries.

How many male hollies do I need to plant and how far apart?

With evergreen holly, you will generally need 1 male for every 20 female hollies. These hollies can be up to 500 feet apart – although 300 to 400 feet is typically recommended.

Winterberry (deciduous) holly need to be closer than evergreen holly. You’ll want to plant 1 male for every 5 to 10 females. Plant the male holly within 50 feet of the female holly.

Single stem of Winterberry (deciduous) holly with large red berries against a background of green plants.

So whether you’re decorating for the holiday or adding winter interest to your garden, holly, with its happy red berries, add ornamentation to any area of your home.


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