American Holly

Geographic Distribution:

The wood commonly known as American Holly, or just Holly in the Americas, is known to botanists as Ilex opaca.

I. opaca is native to the eastern United States in a large area. From the maritime forests of Massachusetts, I. opaca is scattered along the coast to Delaware. It grows inland into several Pennsylvania counties and abundantly southward throughout the coastal plain, Piedmont, and Appalachian system. In effect this means that the entire states of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama are in the range area for I. opaca. The vast majority of the states of Virginia and Tennessee are as well. The range extends south to mid-peninsular Florida, west to eastern Texas and southeastern Missouri.  It corresponds roughly to the combined ranges for loblolly and shortleaf pines.

For the sake of simplicity I will refer to I. opaca from here forward simply as American Holly.

For the curious, I would note that there are two additional species of IlexIlex mitis (Cape Holly), native to Africa, and Ilex aquifolium (English Holly) native to Europe, Northwest Africa, and Southeast Asia.

General Characteristics:

Ideally, American Holly will have a very uniform pale white color that reveals virtually no grain pattern visible.

It is important to know that knots are common in American Holly and this will reduce the usable area of the wood.

American Holly is well known to develop a bluish to gray stain due to fungal growth if the wood is not dried rapidly after cutting.  To help reduce fungal growth and the staining it causes, most American Holly is harvested in the winter and kiln dried shortly after.

Holly Bowl Sidewall

Holly Bowl Sidewall

The grain of American Holly will invariably be interlocked and irregular.  This can create difficulties with the workability of American Holly.  American Holly has a medium to to fine uniform texture with a moderate natural luster.

American Holly is very perishable, not at all resistant to rot and it is also susceptible to insect attack.

Working Characteristics:

American Holly can be difficult to work with due to the presence of numerous knots, and even if one can obtain clear pieces, the interlocked grain, mentioned before, can create problems.  Interlocked grain is especially problematic when planing interlocked woods, but this resource provides helpful guidance on avoiding tear-out.

However, American Holly doe glue, stain, and finish well.  Sometimes American Holly is stained black to substitute for the much rarer and more expensive true Ebony.

Most relevant to our purposes, American Holly turns well on the lathe.

American Holly has not distinctive scent when being freshly worked.

Pricing and Availability:

American Holly is seldom available for commercial sale.  Most American Holly that is sold is sold through small, independent, hobbyist mills.  It is best to seek out American Holly in the winter months.  American Holly is an expensive domestic lumber.  Due to its scarcity, and because it is usually used for small accent pieces, expect to only find American Holly, when and where you can, in small quantities and sizes.

In this blog, I almost always recommend several vendors with whom I have done considerable business and in whom I have great confidence.  These vendors are: West Penn Hardwoods, Bell Forest Products, NC Wood, Got Wood?WoodTurningz, Amazon Exotic Hardwoods, Griffin Exotic Wood, Exotic Woods USA, and Wood Turning Blanks 4U.

Of these fine vendors, five are selling Holly at this time.

NC Wood was the vendor from which I obtained my Holly and they still have some in stock.  A 8” x 8” x 4” bowl blank such as the one I have turned sells for $38.85, which shows the expense of this uncommon wood.