The flooded sinkhole in Jack's front yard is home to several large myrtleleaf hollies including this huge multi-stemmed individual that grows among the baldcypress trees (Taxodium distichum) and buttonbushes (Cephalanthus occidentalis).
Myrtle holy is an attractive shrub or small tree with little bitty evergreen leaves about an inch (2.5 cm) long. The tree seldom gets more than 20 ft (6 m) tall, but the National Champion, near Lawtey in northern Florida, is 40 ft (12 m) tall with a crown spread of 35 ft (10.7 m). The tree is sometimes scrubby looking and branchlets tend to be borne perpendicularly from larger branches. The stiff, leathery leaves are about the size and shape of yaupon holly (I. vomitoria) leaves, but their margins are entire (smooth), not crenate (with rounded teeth). The little white flowers, produced in early spring, are about a quarter inch (6 mm) across, and have four petals. The berries (drupes, actually) are usually red when ripe, but some specimens produce yellow or orange fruits. They are about a quarter inch (6 mm)in diameter. Like many hollies, myrtle holly is dioecious: male and female flowers are on separate plants, and only the female plants produce berries. Myrtle holly is closely related to, and reported to sometimes hybridize with, dahoon holly (I. cassine). In fact, some authorities have listed myrtle holly as a variety of dahoon holly, rather than a species in its own right. Dahoon holly has much larger leaves.
Location Ilex myrtifolia occurs naturally in wetlands on the Coastal Plain from southeastern North Carolina across northern Florida, and west to eastern Texas. It is often found in bald-cypress, black gum and bay swamps, as well as wet savannas and depressions in pine flatwoods. In many little wetland depressions in the Florida Panhandle, myrtle holly is the only tree or shrub.
Myrtle holly is a wetland tree and certainly would thrive in a wet soil. However, like so many other wetland plants, it probably would do quite well in drier soils once it was well established. Light: Myrtle holly usually grows in full sun, although it can take a little shade from tall cypresses or pines. Moisture: Hardiness: USDA Zones 7 - 10. Ilex myrtifolia occurs naturally only in USDA zone 8, but it probably will survive in zones 7-10. Propagation: Softwood cuttings can be started in spring. Seeds of most holly species require 2-3 years of dormancy before they will germinate. I'd go with the cuttings!
The myrtleleaf holly holds its berries well into winter where they look quite attractive against the dark green glossy foliage.
Usage Ilex myrtifolia is rarely cultivated, but it deserves a chance in southern gardens. The berries are brighter red than those of American holly (I. opaca) or Savannah holly (I. X attenuata 'Savannah'), and usually more abundantly produced. No doubt, myrtle holly, like other hollies, would respond well to hedging. If you can find a source, try some myrtle holly bushes in a wet area where you want an evergreen screen or use for a formal hedge. The Association of Florida Native Nurseries lists five sources for myrtle holly. Birds (especially cedar waxwings) eat the berries which usually persist on the plant until the end of winter, no doubt because they don't taste very good to most other birds. Holly berries are notoriously bitter.
Myrtle holly is named for the resemblance of its leaves to true myrtle (Myrtus communis), a native of the Mediterranean region. There are over 400 species of hollies in the world, with about 20 species occurring in eastern North America.