While holly is traditionally thought of as a Christmas plant, primarily because of its bright winterberries, there are actually a wide variety of holly plants with uses that vary from culture to culture. In fact, holly has been a popular barrier hedge for centuries. Holly is a member of the ilex family with the three main branches being the American holly, English holly, and Oriental holly, but each variety of holly has many sub-species. Plants range from low shrubs of 18 inches to trees towering over 50 feet.
We often associate holly with thorns but there are many thorn-less varieties, some of which are often confused with boxwood. The Chinese holly has the most thorns, making it the most difficult to work with. Hollies come in both male and female varieties, and the females are the only ones that produce berries. In order to produce berries, there must be a male plant within at least two miles of a female. Bees and other insects then carry out the pollination. However, some dwarf varieties never produce berries, regardless of the plant's gender.
For a low-growing plant, consider a dwarf yaupon holly. This type of holly can grow from three to five feet over time, and can be easily pruned to keep them small and compact. Many Japanese hollies will grow slightly larger than the dwarves, but also make good hedges. They can grow to six to nine feet in height.
The American holly is a good choice if you need a tall tree-like plant. It will achieve heights of 50 to 60 feet. Because it is indigenous, the American holly is easy to grow. Another good choice in this category is the English holly.
A specimen plant is one that is intended to stand out in the landscape. The holly family includes several of these. The Attacker is the clear leader in the category of tree holly specimen plants. It has deep-green leaves, large red berries, and is a more winter-hardy plant than the English holly.