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Many frustrated holly owners have asked, “Why doesn’t my holly bush have berries?”. While a holly bush’s glossy green leaves are beautiful, the bright red berries add an extra boost to these bushes’ beauty. So when you have a holly with no berries, you may feel you are missing out on a visual treat. Let’s look at the question of, “How do I get berries on my holly bush?”.
Do All Holly Bushes Have Berries?
No, all holly bushes do not have berries. Hollies are dioecious, meaning that they need male and female plants in order to produce seeds, which are what berries are. So only female holly bushes will have the red berries.
This means that if some of your holly bushes do not have berries, they may be male and simply cannot produce berries. It also means that if all of your holly bushes do not have berries, that they may all be male or they all may be female. Without any male holly bushes nearby, the female holly bushes will not produce berries either.
There are also a few rare varieties of holly that do not have berries on either the male or female shrubs. Make sure that you check when buying your holly bush to make sure that the variety you are buying is one that makes berries.
Other Reasons for a Holly With No Berries
While a lack of both sexes of bushes is the most common reason for when holly bush doesn’t have berries, it is not the only reason. There are several other possible answers to the question “Why doesn’t my holly bush have berries?”.
Male Holly Bushes are too Far Away
If the male hollies are too far away from the female hollies, the females cannot produce berries.
Make sure that the female holly shrubs are within 200 yards (183 m.) of a male holly shrub.
Overpruning or Early Pruning
Sometimes a holly will have no berries because the flowers that would make the berries have been cut off. This happens when the holly shrub is overpruned or pruned too early.
Holly berries will only grow on two-year-old growth. If you prune the holly bush back severely, you will cut this growth off. Also, if you prune in the summer or fall, rather than in the winter or early spring, you may also be cutting off the stems that would produce berries next year.
Dry or Cold Weather
Almost all perennial plants will drop their flowers and fruit if they feel they are are in danger. Dry weather causes a holly bush to think it is in danger and it will drop its flowers and berries at that time, which means no berries later on.
Make sure that your holly bushes are getting enough water. They should be getting 1-2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm.) of water a week.
A late cold snap or frost can kill the flowers on the holly bushes that would have become berries later on.
Age or Location
If your holly is too young, it will not bloom or produce berries. On average, hollies need to be at least three to five years of age before flowering and producing subsequent berries.
Another reason for non-fruiting in holly shrubs is not having enough light. Locating hollies in too much shade can reduce flowering, thus resulting in no berries.
Hollies (Ilex spp.) are dioecious, meaning that they produce male and female flowers on different plants. The most common reason for a lack of berries is that the tree is a male or that a male tree is not available nearby to pollinate a female one.
The male pollinator does not need to be right next to the female plant. Hollies are pollinated mainly by bees. Even 200 feet is within the range that bees can carry pollen. A large male holly tree can pollinate numerous female trees.
Hollies are most efficiently pollinated by plants of the same species or variety. Thus, the ‘Jersey Knight’ cultivar of the American holly is able to pollinate many other female American hollies. For English holly (Ilex aquifolium) cultivars, which are very popular hollies, specific cross-fertilizing pairs have been developed, e.g. ‘Silver Milkboy’ and ‘Silver Milkmaid’, or ‘China Boy’ and ‘China Girl’.
There are a few self-pollinating hollies (strictly “parthenocarpic” or sterile plants). For these you need to grow only the female plants. Examples are Ilex x ‘Nellie Stevens’ and Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii’.
There are a number of other reasons why holli es may not produce fruit:
- The tree is too young. Hollies grown from seeds require 3-5 years or even longer to bloom. Trees grown from cuttings need only 1-2 years before they bloom.
- The bee population may be low that particular year or bad weather may have interfered with their pollination.
- If the tree is growing in poor conditions, a cycle may develop of alternate good and poor years for berry production.
- Too much or too little nitrogen-rich fertilizer can be a problem.
- Very dry weather may cause a tree to drop its flowers or berries.
- Over-pruning or early pruning can also be a reason. If flowers are cut off in the spring, obviously no berries can be produced. Summer or early fall pruning may remove stems that would bloom next spring.
- A late frost may kill the flowers in spring.
- All hollies do not bloom at the same time. Thus, if the male plant is not blooming at the same time as the females, fertilization cannot occur.
- Although reputable nurseries properly label plants, mistakes can be made--you may have a male plant!
It is important to note that deciduous hollies are also dioecious. For example, for the commonly grown Sparkleberry deciduous holly (I. serrata x vertilicillata ‘Sparkleberry’), a male companion (‘Apollo’ ) from the same cross is available.
For tips on a variety of gardening topics, see our Plant Information Guides .
- Courtesy of NYBG Plant Information Service
Ultimate Guide to Winterberry Holly
Getting a good looking, colorful winterberry holly is as simple as having the right male.
When people see our winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata), they’re immediately intrigued. It’s no wonder: these native shrubs are stunningly beautiful at the dreariest time of the year. Winterberry holly grows native over a huge swath of North America – eastern Canada all the way through the southern US and as far west as Texas – so it is very hardy (down to USDA zone 3) as well as very heat tolerant (through USDA zone 9). Unlike the classic “Christmas” holly, winterberry holly loses its leaves every autumn, which makes its crop of bright red or yellow berries even more striking. However, getting those berries is precisely why questions about this beautiful native shrub fill our inbox all year.
Winterberry holly is dioecious (dye-oh-ee-shus, Greek for “two houses”). In other words, each individual plant bears only one type of flower: those that will turn into berries (a female plant) or those that bear pollen (a male plant). This means that to get a beautiful, berry-covered winterberry holly, y ou must plant both a male and a female. Male hollies will never develop berries, so they aren’t very showy. Fortunately, you only need to plant one to pollinate up to five female plants. The male and females can be planted anywhere within about 50’/15.25m of one another, so you can use your prime real estate for the showy female(s) and tuck the male plant in an out-of-the-way spot in your landscape.
If you’d like to plant winterberry holly in your yard, first select a female plant with the qualities you’d like: size or quantity of berries, color of the berries, and/or plant size. Once you’ve determined which female variety you want, check the tag for which male variety will be compatible. That recommendation will be based on the blooming period of the two plants, which must overlap exactly. There are two distinct bloom times among winterberry hollies: early and late. Though the difference is usually just a matter of a week or two, male and female plants must be from the same group. When possible, they should also be selected from the same genetic line, which is indicated by similar names – for example, the ideal pollinator for Little Goblin Red is Little Goblin Guy, and the ideal pollinator for Berry Poppins is Mr. Poppins. All Proven Winners varieties are in the early blooming group, so our two male pollinators are interchangeable with any of the female varieties we offer. If the ideal Proven Winners male pollinator is not available, ‘Jim Dandy’, a widely-grown older selection, is suitable. Do not use the other widely-grown male, ‘Southern Gentleman’, as this belongs to the late-blooming group.
Getting a good looking, colorful winterberry holly is as simple as having the right male, in the right proportion to the number of females, and planting them all where they will grow and flower vigorously. However, there are a few reasons why winterberry hollies – and particularly recently planted winterberry hollies – may not have berries:
- Plants bloomed prior to purchase
If you just purchased the plants, they were likely stored in a greenhouse by a grower or garden center during the previous winter. This causes them to bloom earlier than plants that winter naturally outdoors. Therefore, it is possible they would have bloomed before you purchased them and that pollination did not occur under those conditions. As such, new plants may not have any berries their first winter after planting.
Like most shrubs, winterberry hollies bloom and subsequently fruit best when they are established – usually after 2-3 years in the ground. Newly planted winterberries (and especially very small plants that are sold online) will need some time to develop a good root system and put on new growth before they will fruit to their full potential.
If your winterberry hollies experience drought stress, they may not form fruit or may drop any fruit that was beginning to form. In dry soils, provide plenty of water and a good 2-3”/5-7cm layer of mulch to prevent plants from drying out too much.
- Too much shade
Winterberries are quite shade tolerant, but in very dark conditions, flowering and fruiting can be significantly diminished, or may not occur at all. We recommend a minimum of four hours of sun each day, or filtered light throughout the day, for the best display. This encourages abundant flower production, pollination (which relies on insects, who prefer sunnier conditions), and subsequently, fruit production. If you need to transplant a winterberry holly that’s in too much shade, early spring is an ideal time to do so.
- No male
If a male plant is not in the vicinity, or the bloom times of the male and female plants do not overlap, berries will not develop on the female plants. If you aren’t sure whether your plants are male or female, and which ones are which, the only way to tell for certain is to look at the flowers when the plants bloom, usually in late May/early June in the Midwest (a bit earlier in warm climates, a bit later in colder areas). The flowers on female plants will have a raised green nub in the center, which turns into the berry the flowers on male plants have recessed centers and a crown of fluffy yellow pollen-bearing anthers. If you can’t tell which is which from the flowers, you are welcome to contact us with photos and we can identify them for you.
Fun fact: female flowers often have a few false anthers around the berry in the center, but they don’t actually bear any pollen. They’re only to fool pollinating insects into visiting by making them think they’re going to get a snack. However, even when the fake anthers are present, you are unlikely to mistake a female plant for a male due to the prominence of the green berry in the center.
If fruiting is very sparse, this may indicate an unsuitable male, too few males for the number of female plants, or that the male is planted too far from the females.
Winterberry hollies bloom on old wood – in other words, they create their flower buds for the following year during late summer/autumn of the current year. That means if you prune a winterberry holly in spring, you’ll be cutting off flower buds. Other plants that bloom on old wood are typically pruned immediately after they bloom. However, in the case of a winterberry holly, pruning after bloom would remove the developing fruit as well. So, what’s a gardener to do? We recommend not pruning winterberry hollies, period. While it's fine to selectively cut branches to enjoy in indoor and outdoor arrangements, any kind of regular trimming or cutting back should be avoided. Instead, plant winterberry holly where it can grow to its full potential without requiring cutting back.
- Something ate the berries
One of the advantages winterberry hollies have over other shrubs grown for their berries is that birds will eat them, but only after they’ve been softened by repeated freezing and thawing. However, there’s always the possibility that hungry critters will make an unexpected meal of the fruit and it may disappear mid-winter. Don’t worry about deer, though – they won’t touch winterberry holly.
- You may not be seeing the berries
After being pollinated in late spring/early summer, the tiny green berry grows and becomes rounder, but stays green until early autumn. It’s easy to miss them until they actually color up.
Holly- A Medical Wonder
The incredible holly tree has also been found to contain numerous medical benefits and previously, the leaves of this tree was used to cure smallpox and catarrh. People also used to extract the juice out of fresh holly leaves as a treatment for extreme jaundice.
Many people from back in the days also considered holly to be a substitute for tea. They used to make the tea from dried leaves and shoots from a variety of different holly species that resulted in quite a unique blend of delicious tea.
Pruning Bare Branches on Holly Bushes
Bare holly branches can be helped by strategic pruning.
I recently planted a pyramidal-shaped holly bush, and the lower branches are pretty bare. Can I prune them to encourage new growth? -Judith
Holly bushes can lose leaves for a number of reasons, from diseases to environmental factors such as light, water, and temperature. Some of the most common causes include:
- Pests or Disease: The first thing I would recommend is a thorough inspection of the remaining leaves, to see if there are any signs of insects or disease such as spots, shriveled or discolored leaves, bark damage, or galls (strange-looking growths). Some diseases, such as leaf blight, can spread by water splashing up from the ground, which makes the symptoms worse at the bottom of the plant.
- Overcrowding: If the lower branches were bare when you bought it, they may have simply been too crowded at the garden center and those branches didn’t get enough sun. Or, if hedgerows are planted too close together, the upper branches can block sunlight from the lower branches. Bare branches can also happen when bushes and hedges are over-sheared, which causes thick growth at the edges that blocks light and air from the interior of the plant.
How to Prune Holly Branches
If your plant is otherwise healthy, or if you’ve successfully treated any pest or disease problems, follow these tips to give your holly a strategic pruning that will encourage the bottom branches to fill out:
- Remove Dead Branches: Go ahead and completely remove any branches that are completely dead. The best way to tell is to lightly scrape off a little bark with your fingernail – if it’s green underneath, the branch is still alive if it’s brown underneath, it’s dead. Dead branches will also be brittle and snap easily.
I sent a question about this earlier. we purchased the house in 1991 with these topiaries (four of them) with the shape i said in the question and have been maintaining this shape. i want to cut off top and make it about a 5 foot cone shape. Will it fill out into a beautiful cone shape?
I have answered the original. Thanks.
Good care can usually prevent holly diseases from occurring. Ensure that your soil has good drainage and that your holly plant receives plenty of sun. Add a layer of compost to the soil each spring to augment nutrient levels, and mulch around the base of the holly to help keep down weeds and retain moisture. When watering, avoid splashing the leaves, as prolonged dampness can encourage fungal infections. If leaf spots do appear, prune away infected branches as soon as possible to limit the spread of the disease.
Ann Pedtke has been writing about science and the environment since 2001. Her work has appeared in "Isotope," "Green Prints," "The Hudson River Almanac," "The Conservationist" and other publications. Pedtke holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Kenyon College and works in environmental education in New York City.