Chinese Holly (Ilex cornuta)

Chinese Holly, Horned Holly

Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta) is an evergreen shrub native to China and Korea. The chinese holly is often grown ornamentally in gardens and is considered easy to grow and maintain. The chinese holly bears fruits that are thought to be superior to other holly species.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Ilex cornuta, commonly known as Chinese holly or horned holly, is a slow-growing, densely foliaged evergreen shrub in the Aquifoliaceae plant family. 

Ilex cornuta is valued horticulturally for its attractive and distinctive rectangular foliage and for its large red berries. Several cultivars and hybrids have been introduced by the horticultural trade, including ‘Burfordii’ (compact and free-fruiting), ‘Dazzler’ (large fruits), ‘Dwarf Burfordii’ (particularly compact), and ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ (a hybrid with I. aquifolium, very free-fruiting).

Ilex cornuta and its cultivars will tolerate a wide variety of soils and will grow in sun or shade.

Ilex cornuta is a broadleaf evergreen shrub that can grow up to 2.5 metres (8 ft) tall. It has been recorded as growing up to 7.6 metres (25 ft) tall. Leaves are rectangular that have 4 to 5 spines on the leaf margin. The glossy and leathery leaves are simple and alternate on the stem. Flowers begin to bloom during the early spring and are a dull white color and have a fragrance. The flowers produce red berries that ripen in early fall.

The bark is a light gray color and smooth. As it grows, the bark turns into a finely flaky appearance. The stem of Ilex cornuta is either green or a red to burgundy color depending on the season. The green stems turn slightly more red during the winter months.

Ilex cornuta is dioecious, meaning the flowers found on the shrub are either female or male. Male and female flowers are not found together on the same plant, so the plant is not self-fertile, it takes a male and a female plant to reproduce.

Ilex cornuta is native to the central and southeastern parts of China, Hainan, and Korea. Ilex cornuta was introduced to the United States and is currently considered invasive. It has been observed naturalizing in the eastern United States, found most prominently in North Carolina, Alabama, and Kentucky.

Ilex cornuta is tolerant of most soils except those that are poorly drained. It can be grown in partial and full sun and is tolerant of the heat and humidity. The shrub can be found between 150 and 600 meters elevation and along mountain ridges that have full sun.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

Chinese holly requires an environment with bright and soft light to grow. It grows well in shady places, sheltered on one side, and even in direct sunlight. Mature plants have higher fruit growth rates in places with good light. Young plants, on the other hand, need a shady place (shade cloth can be used) in summer to avoid direct sunlight and prevent sunburn.

Chinese holly kept indoors should be placed in sunny rooms, about 50 to 100 cm from the window. Do not place the plant in an environment where light is completely blocked. After extended periods of insufficient light, the plant’s photosynthetic rate will decrease. This will slow down the growth rate possibly to zero, cause thin and weak leaves, and decrease the flowering and fruiting rate.

Temperature and Humidity

The Chinese holly drought tolerance is exceptional, and once the trees are established in the growing zones 7 to 9, it thrives in full to partial sun, forming an impenetrable hedge.

In the colder USDA zones, your shrubs might need some covering to protect them from the cold. Nonetheless, it can tolerate high temperatures to different humidity levels.

The Chinese holly is hardy growing in the recommended hardiness zones but needs protection from the freeze-thaw cycle. To prevent this from happening, add some mulch around the base of the plant.

For young shrubs, you can provide a wrap around the base of the tree like burlap.

Watering

After planting, water Chinese Holly deeply. Add one to two inches of mulch or pine straw atop the fresh soil. Leave room around the base of the plant as putting mulch too close could cause the bark rot. Once Chinese Holly has been planted properly, it is exceptionally beautiful and also very adaptable. The plants crave only occasional deep watering if the weather is extremely dry but generally prove to be both resistant to drought and heat.

Soil

Chinese holly prefers moist, well-drained soil. It grows in clay, sand, or loam if the soil has excellent drainage. If the clay soil is very dense, mix in organic matter or planting mix to enrich the roots. If the soil is very sandy and drains quickly, add compost to retain moisture.

Fertilizing

You can feed your Needlepoint holly in late winter to early spring, a slow-release fertilizer made for shrubs and trees. The sulfur and iron help keep the greening consistent. You can give them a second feed when the leaves turn yellow in late summer.

The tree is heat tolerant but needs added protection in winter using a layer of mulch like pine straw for added nutrition.

Planting Instructions

Though its red fruits are a Christmas symbol, it is generally best to plant chinese holly in spring. Large seedlings over 2 years old are preferred for planting. plants should be spaced about 1 m apart and there should be about 1 to 1.2 m between rows. Compacting the soil and watering after planting will allow the roots to be in closer contact with the soil. It should be noted that chinese holly is dioecious, so it requires both female and male plants present to produce fruits. Successful pollination only happens when plants are spaced no more than 9 m apart. One male plant can pollinate 6-10 female plants.

Pruning

Chinese holly flowers and fruits only grow on new branches, so the plant needs to be pruned to promote the germination of new branches. It’s best to prune before early spring, ideally during winter. In addition to promptly cutting off old, yellow, dried, and diseased leaves, one-third of the old branches should be cut off from the base every year. This promotes vertical growth, flowering, and fruiting. After winter pruning in cold areas where it snows, the remaining branches can be bundled with ropes to avoid damage caused by snow or ice on the branches.

Propagation

Cuttings

Propagate Chinese holly from semi-hardwood cuttings. Here’s how to do it:

  • In summer, cut a six-inch stem tip from the bush, making a sharp and even cut right below one of the small bumps, or “bud union” where the leaf meets the stem. Remove leaves along the bottom four inches of the stem, leaving just the top leaves.
  • Dip the cutting in rooting hormone and place the cutting about three inches deep in a container filled with coarse sand and potting soil. Firm the soil around the stem.
  • Place the cutting in bright, indirect light in a shelter space.
  • Water the cutting frequently and protect it from the elements. In about 6 to 8 weeks, the cutting should have rooted.
  • Harden off the new plant before placing it in the garden.

Grow from Seed

While it is possible to grow Chinese holly from seed, germination of the seeds can take up to three years, even with the best possible conditions. Given the ease of propagating by cuttings and the lengthy time and care it takes to grow from seed, this method is not recommended.

Potting and Repotting 

Chinese holly appreciates moist, well-drained soil when planted in the ground or a pot. Take extra care to maintain a moist, not soggy, environment in containers. Drainage holes and a high-quality potting mix will provide an ideal beginning for this holly. Choose a rather large pot at least eight inches wider than the root ball. This will give the plant room to grow for the next two to three years before upgrading to a bigger container.

Overwintering

Hollies are quite hardy in their appropriate zones. To protect them from the freeze-thaw cycle during the winter, apply several inches of mulch over the roots. The mulch should extend out as wide as the branches do. Very young plants can be lightly wrapped at the base with burlap for further protection.

Pests and Diseases

The holly quickly becomes troubled by the holly leaf miner, whiteflies, spider mites, and scale. You can remove the spider mites manually or use a blast of water. For the holly leaf miner, use some permethrin spray to remove them.

Other potential plant diseases are powdery mildew, tar spot, leaf rot, and leaf spot. Another concern is the leaf scorch from high heat.

III. Uses and Benefits 

Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta) is an evergreen shrub popular for its spiked year-round leaves and abundant red berries which attract birds. This tall shrub can be used as a hedge because of its dense growth or grown as a specimen in winter gardens. However, a number of smaller cultivars of this plant exist which are more often seen in domestic gardens, often growing with coral bells, redtwig dogwood, or rose of Sharon.

IV. Harvesting and Storage

In suitable growth conditions, chinese holly blooms and bears fruits once a year. The fruits appear in fall and winter, and can be appreciated for a long time before picking. Without birds in the yard, the fruits often persist into the next spring. The vase life of fruit-bearing branches after picking is about 20-40 days.

Use sharp garden shears when picking and cut the base of branches at a 45-degree angle, or make the cut into a cross, to increase the water absorption area. Quickly put the cutting in a vase with clean water to avoid water loss. The fruits of Ilex verticillata can also be air-dried since they tend to not drop from the branches. Their colors will change from bright red to deep red, providing good ornamental value.

Chinese Holly (Ilex cornuta) Details

Common name Chinese Holly, Horned Holly
Botanical name Ilex cornuta
Plant type Shrub
Hardiness zone 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Growth rate Fast
Harvest time Fall
Height 8 ft. 0 in. - 15 ft. 0 in.
Width 8 ft. 0 in. - 15 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color White
Leaf color Green