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Holly, East Palatka

Plant of the Week

East Palatka Holly
Latin: Ilex x attenuata 'East Palatka'

East Palatka Holly

Even before Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, scientists had a fascination with classifying and categorizing every element of the natural world.

With plants, the basic unit of classification was the species -- a uniquely different group of plants that were separate from all others. Darwin developed a way of explaining how new species came into existence but added little guidance as to when two plants were sufficiently different to be classified as a separate and unique species.

Botanists involved in plant classification are often dubbed "lumpers" and "splitters" with the first group combining large groups of plants under a single species name while the second group splits these larger units into smaller species with better defined characteristics. The East Palatka Holly illustrates the species concept and shows how intermediate forms come into existence.

East Palatka Holly was selected from the wild about 1926 near the community of East Palatka, Florida, by H. H. Hume, a Florida horticulturist who went on to become Dean of Agriculture at the University of Florida. The tree shows intermediate characteristics between its two parents, the tree form American holly (Ilex opaca) and the usually more shrubby Dahoon holly (I. cassine). While these two species share considerable overlapping range, the former species tends to have a more northern distribution while the latter is restricted to the Gulf Coastal plains in the southeastern states. Because hollies are insect pollinated and because they exist as either male or female plants, the potential for cross-species hybridization is high when they occur in the same area.

East Palatka is a tree which grows to 35 feet tall, about half the height of the American holly but larger than the Dahoon holly. Its leaves are thinner and usually have only one spine at the tip instead of the seven to ten found for American holly. The abundant red berries that appear in the winter -- because East Palatka is a female clone -- are smaller and produced in clusters of three and resemble more the Dahoon parent than the single-fruited American holly.

The East Palatka trees that are found in the nursery trade are all grown from cuttings and are thus all alike. If seeds are collected from East Palatka and planted, the resulting seedlings will be extremely variable and show a range of characteristics. Some of these seedling plants will look like the American holly parent, some like the Dahoon parent and numerous intermediate forms. Because these hybrids occur often enough in nature botanists have created the hybrid genus I. x attenuata to accommodate all of these intermediate forms.

East Palatka is one of the most common tree form hollies and one of the best. It is faster growing than most American hollies and it has a more refined appearance in the landscape with its softer green foliage and non-spiny leaves. Like most hollies, it will grow in full sun or partial shade but does best in good, rich soil. Hollies are not very drought tolerant so should be watered during extended droughts. In the landscape they are ideally suited for use as a single specimen, as a screen planting or even can be clipped for a large hedge.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - January 14, 2000


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.