Dwarf Holly Bonsai Care Guide

General Information

Hollies fall under the genus Ilex, which encompasses roughly 400 species of evergreen shrubs native to areas all over the world including Asia, Russia, and North America. There are several dwarf and compact varieties useful for bonsai, including Ilex crenata 'Mariesii', Ilex cornuta 'Rotunda', and Ilex glabra 'Compacta'.

Holly has a rich history culminating in the modern automatic association with Christmas. This tradition actually originated with British druids who believed that the vibrant green plant was not only sacred, but could repel evil spirits from their homes. This compelled them to use it for decorative purposes, in the hopes of earning woodland spirits' favor. The attractive looks and interesting history have earned hollies much popularity with enthusiasts new and experienced.

Tree's Attributes

Holly is known for its glossy, leathery green foliage with serrated leaves. On the smaller varieties such as dwarf hollies the leaves may only grow to one or two inches. Some dwarfs produce the signature tiny white flowers along with showy red and shiny berries, while others, like I. crenata produce small, shiny, black berries.

The trunk is usually a grayish-brown that becomes smooth and thin as the tree matures.


Hollies need protection from frost to avoid root damage, as well as shelter from cold winds. Dwarf Holly can be an indoor plant provided plenty of light is offered (a south-facing window works best for natural sunlight) but really prefers to be outdoors. Ilex can tolerate shade but keep in mind that the more light your plant receives, the smaller the leaves tend to be and the more dense the foliage will become.


Dwarf Holly likes a good amount of water and should not be allowed to completely dry out. Watering properly is especially important during the heat of summer, as well as in spring right before fruit production. Continue adding water until it drips out of the drainage holes in the pot. Watering may be reduced in wintertime.

This species appreciates regular misting of the foliage.


Fertilizing should be undertaken in the spring, in order to fuel the new growth that is rapidly occurring. Feed the holly every two weeks throughout the growing season with either a balanced bonsai fertilizer or a regular, organic fertilizer diluted to half strength.


Styles – Dwarf Holly takes well to many shapes, due to its dense foliage and branch structure. Particularly suitable styles include slanting, cascade, semi-cascade, informal upright, formal upright, root-over-rock, clump, twin trunk, and saikei.

Pruning should be done in early spring. New shoots that reside in undesirable places may be trimmed back to one or two nodes from the trunk. Clip and grow may be used to shape and maintain the structure of the tree.

Wiring is possible but it should be done carefully, with raffia used to protect the bark from damage. Wiring may be done between spring and autumn.


Deciduous hollies may be propagated by way of cuttings, seeds, and air layering. Evergreens will be most successfully propagated by cuttings. Seed germination will require cold stratification and if successful, sprouting could take three years.

Softwood cuttings from the current year's growth will root fairly easily when taken in late summer or early fall. Rooting hormone is beneficial. Place treated cuttings in moist soil and keep in the shade until the root system develops.


This can be carried out approximately every other year, ideally in the early spring. Prune the roots, removing any damaged, mushy, or discolored parts, being careful to stick to removing no more than about one fourth of the root mass. Ilex should be transplanted into a well-draining, organic matter rich bonsai soil mixture.

Insects/Pests & Diseases

Dwarf Holly may be weakened by the production of too much fruit, which stresses the tree and can cause health problems. The amount of fruit the tree is permitted to produce should be limited.

Scale, aphids, mites, or leaf miners are potential enemies of this bonsai. Remove scale manually with the tip of a sharp implement, then treat the tree with insecticide to kill the eggs.

For aphids, which appear as small, light green clusters on the leaves, or spider mites, which appear as nearly microscopic red pinpoints, spray the plant with a mixture of dish liquid and warm water, then rinse with clear water.

Many pest and disease issues in bonsai are a direct result of poor health caused by improper watering, feeding, or lack of sunlight. Taking good, quality care of your plant from the start will go a long way toward minimizing future problems.

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