How to Plant, Grow, and Care for ‘Nellie Stevens’ Holly

Looking for a vigorous evergreen with multiseason impact? ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly grows quickly with attractive form, foliage, and fruits. Loads of bright red berries shine against glossy green leaves in winter. Explore how to plant, grow, and care for Nellie Stevens holly with gardening expert Katherine Rowe.

A close-up reveals the vibrant 'Nellie R. Stevens' holly tree, adorned with glossy, emerald leaves contrasted against ripe, red berries. Each leaf features pronounced, jagged edges, adding texture and depth to the tree's lush foliage.


Known for their architectural forms, shapely leaves, and showy fruits, hollies anchor a landscape. The Ilex genus holds over 400 species of deciduous and evergreen trees, shrubs, and climbers, widely cultivated as garden specimens. One of the most attractive and vigorous hollies is Nellie Stevens holly.

Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ grows in a classic pyramidal form with dark, lustrous leaves and vibrant burgundy-red berries. A carefree garden performer, ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ adapts to a variety of landscape conditions. This centuries-old garden staple enhances the garden with multi-season appeal. Here’s how to grow it!

‘Nellie Stevens’ Holly

‘Nellie Stevens’ Holly:

  • makes an excellent evergreen privacy screen or hedge
  • grows 3 feet per year
  • has ornamental red berries in winter
  • grows well in zones 6-9

buy at Epic Gardening Shop


‘Nellie R. Stevens’ Holly Overview

A close-up of 'Nellie R. Stevens' holly shrub reveals its glossy, ovate leaves contrasted against white berries. Sunlight gently caresses the foliage, casting subtle shadows and highlighting its intricate details in a serene natural tableau.
‘Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ is a broadleaf evergreen plant belonging to the Aquifoliaceae family.
Plant Type Broadleaf evergreen
Family Aquifoliaceae
Genus Ilex
Species ‘Nellie R. Stevens’
Native Area Garden origin
Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Height 15-25’
Watering Requirements Medium
Pests and Diseases Leaf miner, scale, spider mites, whiteflies, leaf spot, powdery mildew
Maintenance Low
Soil Type Average
Hardiness Zone 6-9

What is ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ Holly?

Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ is a broadleaf evergreen holly with dense foliage and abundant red berries. It grows vigorously and readily adapts to various site conditions. Its conical and pyramidal form makes a beautiful garden specimen and exceptional screen planting. Dense and spiny foliage make this cultivar an ideal natural barrier selection. Its tough nature creates a hardy privacy barrier or windscreen planted in a group.

Who is Nellie R. Stevens? 

A close-up of 'Nellie R. Stevens' holly, its pale white berries emerging among green leaves, evoking a sense of purity and growth. In the background, a soft blur accentuates the lush foliage, enhancing the composition's natural beauty.
A new holly was discovered accidentally during a garden renovation.

The name Nellie R. Stevens is well known in southern gardens. But who was she, and why is the famed holly her namesake? Renowned plantsman Allan Armitage and colleague Linda Copeland penned a book called Legends of the Garden, with stories of the people behind garden favorites, including Miss Nellie.

The story goes that Nellie Stevens grew up in Oxford on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She became the high school principal and a pillar of the community. On a trip to Washington, DC, in 1900, Nellie collected a few seeds from hollies at the U.S. Botanic Garden and planted them in her Oxford garden.

The resulting ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly is a fortunate accident between naturally cross-pollinated hollies. Decades later, Nellie’s niece moved to the property and planned to renovate the garden. When she and representatives from the American Holly Society couldn’t identify the prolific specimen, a new species was introduced in Nellie Stevens’ name


A close-up of red 'Nellie R. Stevens' berries catching sunlight, radiating warmth. Glossy deep green leaves encircle the berries, providing a lush backdrop, enhancing their vivid hue against the bright sunlit scene.
This holly has dark green glossy leaves with spines.

Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ features dark green, glossy leaves with two to three spines along each margin. Densely packed foliage amply creates a full, evergreen tree or shrub. Without pruning, Nellie grows rapidly in a tidy pyramidal form with broad branching at its skirt. With pruning, it grows as a shrub or trunked tree with lower branches lifted. Its prettiest form is the natural, conical specimen.

In the spring, bursts of tiny, greenish-white flowers emerge and attract bees, including Colletes banksi, the harmless cellophane bee among the first to appear in spring to begin feeding and pollinating. Honeybees and bumblebees also flock to the blooms.

The relatively inconspicuous blooms lead to a profusion of bright red, pea-sized berries in the fall. Nellie Stevens produces fruits in abundance. The high color persists in the winter, striking among the lustrous leaves. Berries support wildlife, especially birds foraging late in the season.

Plant ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ as a tall specimen among foundation plantings or at the back of the garden border. It’s lovely in woodland plantings and pollinator gardens alike.

Hollies are dioecious, meaning plants are male or female, and often need cross-pollination to produce fruits. With its hardy parentage, this cultivar produces some fruits without a male pollinator. Nellie’s parent, Ilex cornuta, possesses this ability (to reproduce parthenocarpically), while the other parent, Ilex aquifolium, does not. Nellie Stevens produces more fruits with the benefit of a male specimen nearby, like Ilex cornuta, which blooms at the appropriate time.

Native Area

A ripe 'Nellie R. Stevens' holly berry in close-up, suspended delicately from a branch, showcasing its vibrant hue and enticing texture. The blurred backdrop features lush foliage, adding depth and contrast to the berry's captivating presence.
This holly is a cross between Chinese and English hollies.

‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly is a natural cross between Chinese and English hollies. Chinese holly, Ilex cornuta, grows naturally in Asia on mountains, hillsides, and ravines. Native to eastern China and Korea, breeders cultivate Ilex cornuta for its adaptability and high ornamental landscape value through attractive form, leaves, and fruits.

English holly, Ilex aquifolium, is also called Christmas holly for its characteristic dark, glossy leaves (whose spines we’ve all experienced) and bright red berries used for traditional European holiday decoration. English hollies occur naturally in scrub and woodland areas in Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. It dislikes cold, Midwestern winters and hot, Southern summers.

Both species adapt to various site conditions and naturalize in parts of the United States. Ilex cornuta grows wild in areas of the Southeast and Ilex aquifolium in the Pacific Northwest. Chinese holly is on the invasive list for Georgia.  English holly is invasive in Oregon, Alaska, and California (including Yosemite and Redwood National Parks). Their offspring ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ is not considered invasive, though more research needs to be done to determine its actual invasive potential.


'Nellie R. Stevens' holly leaves, basking in sunlight, their green hues accentuated. Delicate white berries nestle amidst the foliage, adding a touch of elegance. In the background, a gentle blur reveals a tapestry of more lush leaves.
The plant benefits from cross-pollination with Ilex cornuta for increased fruit production.

These hollies grow quickly with a mature size of 15 to 25 feet tall and 8 to 12 feet wide. Nellie takes pruning well but doesn’t require it. Allow room for its mature width, broader at the base. Lift lower branches if needed to make room for underplantings (though Nellie is most attractive with a full skirt, branching to the ground).

Since Nellie Stevens bears more fruit when cross-pollinated with a male holly, consider planting an Ilex cornuta nearby. Ilex cornuta exists in numerous cultivars that range in size with a bloom time similar to Nellie’s. There may already be hollies in your area to fulfill the role, and she will bear fruit without a male holly nearby.


A person in green and yellow gloves gently plants a 'Nellie R. Stevens' holly sapling, its berries peeking out. The sapling is nestled in rich brown soil, promising growth and vitality in the earth.
Plant in spring or fall for optimal growth.

Plant ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ any time of year. For most trees and large shrubs, spring and fall are the best planting times. Moderate temperatures and plenty of moisture give plants time to get established before the temperature extremes of summer and winter.

Nellie benefits from roots staying in place, so it’s best to plant it in a permanent location where it can grow and thrive to maturity. It can grow in containers as long as the pot is sizeable for maximum root expansion. Since this plant grows rapidly, transplant to the garden when it outgrows its pot.

How to Grow

This is an easy-care holly with few maintenance needs. She performs beautifully in the landscape with little intervention from the gardener.


A close-up of red 'Nellie R. Stevens' holly berries gleaming under sunlight, evoking a sense of warmth and vitality. Glossy deep green leaves encircle the berries, providing a striking contrast and adding to the visual allure of the scene.
Ideal growing conditions include full sun to partial shade.

‘Nellie R. Stevens’ grows best in full sun to partial shade. They make a woodland edge understory planting or thrive in the sunny border and foundation planting.

In hot southern climates, leaves benefit from protection from direct afternoon rays to prevent leaf scorch.


Red berries with green leaves hang gracefully from the ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly branches. Tiny water droplets glisten on the surface of the berries, enhancing their allure with a delicate touch of nature's adornment.
Consistently water about one inch per week during the growing season.

Water regularly throughout the growing season at about one inch per week or when the top two inches of soil are dry. Once established, hollies are drought tolerant.


A black soil meter, partly submerged, gauges moisture in brown soil, signaling ideal conditions for plant growth. The stark contrast between the meter's black hue and the earthy brown soil showcases the synergy of technology and nature.
They prefer well-draining, slightly acidic soils rich in organic matter.

These hollies thrive in well-draining soils with even moisture. They prefer slightly acidic soils rich in organic matter but aren’t picky if soil conditions are lesser. The ideal soil pH is 6.0 or less.

These rugged beauties grow in variable soil types, including clay, sand, and loamy silt. While they’ll withstand periods of water, they won’t thrive in constantly wet conditions.

Temperature and Humidity

A close-up captures the intricate beauty of a 'Nellie R. Stevens' holly branch, its glossy leaves reflecting the ambient light. Vibrant red berries adorn the branch, adding a pop of color to the scene.
They require winter protection in USDA zone 6.

Nellie Stevens is among the most heat tolerant of the hollies, ideal for hot, southern climates. Winter hardy to USDA zone 6, they’ll perform best in a site with winter protection, especially in an area out of cold winter winds.

The University of Florida notes that young roots freeze at 23℉ (-5°C) while mature roots withstand temperatures to 14℉ (-10°C). Mulch provides insulation in winter and cooling moisture in summer.

In addition to variable site conditions, it also tolerates coastal exposure and withstands pollution.


Hands tenderly cradle rich, brown soil, ready for planting, suggesting care and growth. In the background, a blur of earth extends, promising an abundance of potential for cultivation and nurturing.
Occasional balanced fertilizer applications enhance vitality.

Fertilizer isn’t essential, but applications of a balanced 10-10-10 or other organic fertilizer at planting and spring ensure a vital growing season. Yellowing leaves signal chlorosis from alkaline (high pH) soils, and fertilizer boosts nutrition if this occurs. Amend soils with compost from completely broken down plant matter to lower alkalinity. ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ grows well with or without fertilizer in optimal cultural conditions.


A close-up of yellow 'Nellie R. Stevens' holly berries, nestled among glossy leaves. The sunlight bathes them, enhancing their golden hue and casting delicate shadows, creating a picturesque scene of natural beauty and warmth.
Provide with sun and moist soil for low-maintenance beauty.

‘Nellie R. Stevens’ is beautiful and low maintenance. With full to partial sun and moist, well-draining soil, there’s little else this holly asks.

If you need to prune for size or shape, do so in late winter to early spring before blooms emerge. Otherwise, let Nellie grow naturally in her lovely, pyramidal fashion.


Hollies propagate best through hardwood cuttings. Cuttings may take a few years to develop into robust plants, but they’re an easy way to reproduce the parent plant and relatively easy to try. Stick cuttings right in their permanent garden location to avoid future root disturbance.


A 'Nellie R. Stevens' holly bush stands out with its dense foliage, showcasing glossy, deep green leaves. Amidst the abundance, a solitary red berry adds a striking contrast, drawing attention to the bush's natural beauty.
Take multiple cuttings in either spring or fall to propagate holly successfully.

Propagate holly cuttings in the spring or fall. Take multiple cuttings since not all may root. Here’s how best to take holly cuttings:

  1. Cut a six-to-eight-inch piece from the tip of a healthy stem.
  2. Cut the stem at a 45-degree angle.
  3. Remove the foliage from the bottom ½ of the cutting, keeping any upper leaves intact.
  4. Keep cuttings moist until ready to pot.
  5. Moisten the cutting and dip the lower stem in rooting hormone, coating generously.
  6. Tap off any excess rooting powder.
  7. Stick the cutting at about half its length in its garden location, prepped with moist, well-draining soil.
  8. Water/mist as needed, keeping the soil evenly moist.

Common Problems

‘Nellie R. Stevens’ is resistant and primarily free of serious pests and diseases, though hollies are sometimes affected by holly leaf miners, spider mites, whiteflies, and scale. Potential diseases like leaf spot and powdery mildew can occur.

Ensuring proper cultural conditions and a diversity of garden plantings help mitigate pests and diseases by maintaining a balanced garden system. Attract beneficial insects to the garden for natural pest control.


A close-up of 'Nellie R. Stevens' holly leaves, shimmering in sunlight, revealing intricate vein patterns. Despite the vibrant display, some leaves bear signs of leaf miner infestation, evident through translucent trails snaking across the green foliage.
Early detection is key for controlling insect infestations in hollies.

The best way to control insects is to spot them early. You’ll likely see the insects themselves or notice their paths of destruction.

Leafminers (fly larvae) burrow and tunnel into holly leaves. Their paths and punctures deform leaves, leaving yellowing and blotching. Beneficial insects like lacewings and predatory wasps prey on leafminers. It’s easy to defray a light infestation by removing damaged leaves. 

Scale are common garden pests that pierce plants to feed on sap. You may notice a sticky residue from sap-sucking pests. The little legless blobs usually appear on the undersides of leaves and stems as black, gray, or silvery dots. Leaves may yellow and drop, with branches dying back in heavy infestations. Remove affected leaves (and branches, if severe).

Whiteflies also feed on sap and cause plant weakness. Leaves may turn yellow and drop. Whiteflies flutter around plants when disturbed.

Pesky spider mites live on the undersides of leaves, indicated by webbing and light yellowing of leaf surfaces. Predatory insects like ladybugs and predatory mites help control populations.

In pest outbreaks, spray the plant with a strong stream of water to deter and knock insects off the stems. Mix a few drops of Castile soap in a quart of water to make a simple spray treatment. A horticultural soap or oil can rid the plant of insects if an infestation occurs, but be sure to follow label directions, as these affect beneficial insects as well. 


An extreme close-up displaying intricate details of a deep green leaf, showcasing delicate veins and textured surface. A leaf miner infestation is evident, characterized by winding trails and discolored patches, indicative of the pest's destructive feeding behavior.
Leaves affected by powdery mildew can be treated with neem oil.

As with pests, the best disease control is prevention through cultural conditions. Fortunately, this cultivar is infrequently affected by disease. In general, problem plants should be removed from the garden to minimize chemical treatments and promote the health of surrounding plants.

Powdery mildew is a common fungal disease indicated by a gray-white powdery substance on leaves, stems, and buds. Holly leaves may distort and drop during infections. Horticultural oils like Neem can treat powdery mildew (but again, these impact beneficial insects, so be sure to follow application requirements).

Leaf spot, another fungal infection, manifests in yellow leaf spots in spring that transition to red in summer and black in the fall. To treat leaf spot, remove damaged leaves (including fallen leaves) and prune plants to increase air circulation. Gray spots occur on leaves when spines puncture them and need no action.

Frequently Asked Questions

How quickly does ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly grow?

‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly grows rapidly, gaining as much as three feet per year. With their easy, carefree vigor, these hollies make excellent evergreen specimens and screen plantings in USDA zones 6-9.

Does ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly produce red berries?

Nellie Stevens produces loads of red berries in the fall. Burgundy red fruits last into winter for high color in the cool season. Berries support birds and other wildlife as winter forage. ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ is a female holly that benefits from pollination with a nearby male holly (like Ilex cornuta) to produce even more fruits.

Is ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly easy to grow?

‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly is easy to grow with low maintenance garden needs. They grow best in full sun to partial shade in slightly acidic, rich, well-drained soils but adapt readily to various light and soil conditions. They tolerate coastal conditions, heat, and pollution.

Final Thoughts

‘Nellie R. Stevens’ brings a high impact to the garden year-round. With a fast growth rate and low maintenance, it is an easy-care evergreen with multiseason interest. The plant adapts to different sunlight and soil conditions and thrives in heat.

This cultivar has a dense, symmetrical form with sturdy branching, creating an attractive landscape specimen, border, or screen planting. Attractive leaves form a classic backdrop for bright red berries. Grow this holly to anchor the garden, yield prominent color, and draw pollinators.

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