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A Comprehensive Guide to Holly-Leaf Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia)

Holly-leaf Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) is a large shrub to small tree that is native to the state of California. This plant is a host to several butterflies, including swallowtails, and several moths. Growing from 8 to 30 (50) feet tall, this tree has white to cream flowers that bloom from March to May. It is hardy in zones 9-10.

Taxonomy and Naming of Holly-leaf Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia)

Herbarium specimen of holly-leaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia).
Herbarium Specimen — Prunus ilicifolia subsp. ilicifolia collected in United States of America by The New York Botanical Garden (licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Taxonomy

Holly-leaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) was originally named and described by Thomas Nuttall, an American botanist, in 1842 as Lauro-cerasus ilicifolia. Later two botanists, William Jackson Hooker and George Walker Arnott, validly described the species. After this the genus was changed to Prunus, by David Dietrich, a German botanist. The species has kept this name since and is a member of the Rose Family (Rosaceae).

Subspecies

This species has two subspecies that are separated by the fruit colors and location.

  • Prunus ilicifolia subsp. ilicifolia: (Holly-leaf Cherry) has red fruits and is located on the mainland of California
  • Prunus ilicifolia subsp. lyonii: (Catalina Island Cherry) has blue-black fruits and located on the California islands.

Meaning of the Scientific and Common Names

Scientific Name

The genus name, Prunus, is Latin for drupe, referring to the fruit type of the genus (Missouri Botanical Garden). The species name, ilicifolia, derives from the Latin word, ilicifolius, means leaves like holly (Missouri Botanical Garden).

Common Name and Alternative Names

The common name comes from the resemblance of the leaves to those of the holly plant. Other common names include evergreen cherry, referring to it being evergreen and islay, a Native American name. Some other common names in the trade are Spanish wild cherry and evergreen cherry (Claremont Nurseries 1913) and oakleaf cherry, wild cherry, and mountain evergreen cherry (Sudworth 1927). The name, Catalina Island Cherry, is applied to subsp. lyonii.

Physical Description of Holly-leaf Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia)

White flowers of holly leaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia).
Flowers of Holly-leaf Cherry — Prunus ilicifolia (Nutt. ex Hook. & Arn.) D.Dietr. observed in United States of America by George Williams (licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Description

  • Plant Type: This plant is a shrub to small tree.
  • Height: 8 to 30 (50) feet
  • Stem: woody and not thorny (Jepson eflora) and glabrous with yellow-green, orange turning gray to reddish brown with age (Sargent 1892).
  • Leaves: The leaves are alternate, petiolate, simple, entire (subsp. lyonii) or spiny-toothed (subsp. ilicifolia), and ovate to round in shape (Jepson eflora) or lanceolate. The leaves are 0.5 to 5 inches long and 1 to 4.5 inches wide. This species has evergreen leaves.
  • Flower color: white, cream, green to yellow with greenish-white to yellow-brown hoods
  • Blooming period: This plant blooms from (February) March to May.
  • Fruiting type and period: This plant has follicles that mature in the late summer and fall.

Range of Holly-leaf Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) in the United States and Canada

Range map of holly-leaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) in the United States and Canada.
Range Map Credit: Kartesz, J.T., The Biota of North America Program (BONAP). 2023.(website https://bonap.org/). Chapel Hill, N.C. [maps generated from Kartesz, J.T. 2023. Floristic Synthesis of North America, Version 1.0. Biota of North America Program (BONAP). (in press)]

This cherry is found in the state of California in the United States. It also grows in northern Mexico on the Baja Peninsula. This species has been introduced into gardens in Europe.

Habitat

Chaparral habitat in California.
Chaparral Habitat in California — Alex Wild, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This species grows in chaparral, the transition from chaparral to desert (Shreve 1936), woodlands, coastal sage (Mullaly 1994), moist soil along streams (Sargent 1892) and alluvial scrub (Burk, et al. 2007). It is found from sea level up about 6,000 feet in the coast range (Plummer 1911). It has been shown to be resistant to wildfires and can resprout from burned roots (Rengers, et al. 2020).

Hosted Insects

Pale swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon) on a red flower.
Pale Swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon) — ALAN SCHMIERER, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This species is a host for five butterflies and several species of moths. These include the pale swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon) (Emmel and Emmel 1963), western tiger swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) – though not preferred (Dowell et al. 1990), holly blue butterfly (Celastrina angialis), California hairstreak (Satyrium californica), and the Lorquin’s admiral (Limenitis lorquini). Moths include elegant sphinx (Sphinx perelegans) (McFarland 1965) , a moth (Filatema demissae) (Keifer 1931) and a moth (Stigmella braunella).

Other Supported Wildlife

Metallic bee on white flower.
Flower with Metallic Bee — David Whelan, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This species is a nectar source to other butterflies, skippers, bees, and wasps during the growing season. The fruits of this plant are eaten and dispersed in part by coyotes (Bullock 1981), bears (Borchert and Tyler 2010), and other mammals.

Frequently Asked Questions about Holly-leaved Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia)

Does this plant have any ethnobotanical uses?

The Native American Ethobotanical Database shows that this plant is has a lot of uses as a food and cough medicine.

How is this plant distinguished from other cherries?

This species is similar to the western choke cherry (Prunus virgniana var. demissa), but is separated by the deciduous leaves. Both species have 15+ flowers in the raceme. The leaves of this cherry are described as being similar to the spiny redberry (Rhamnus crocea) (Cooper 1922). However, spiny redberry has acute or rounded leaf tips (Cooper 1022) and the lower leaf surface is yellow to brown (Gaines 1964), whereas the cherry generally has acuminate leaf tips that are mucronate (Jepson eflora) and the lower leaf surface is pale green (Gaines 1964). Even though the ranges do not overlap, the leaves of this species are also similar to the wild black cherry (Prunus serotina), but the wild black cherry leaves are deciduous versus to the evergreen leaves of this plant.

Is this plant invasive?

This plant has not been shown to be invasive in the literature.

Is this plant poisonous?

The seeds of this plant are poisonous if eaten.

Gardening with Holly-leaf Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia)

Add Holly-leaf Cherry to Your Garden

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Green fruit of holly leaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia).
Fruit of Holly-leaf Cherry — Prunus ilicifolia (Nutt. ex Hook. & Arn.) D.Dietr. observed in United States of America by James Connolly Davis (licensed under CC0 1.0)

Hardiness

This species is hardy in zones 9-10. If your garden is within these zones and you have the right growing conditions (soil, moisture and exposure), you may well be able to grow this plant. However, if planted outside of its range, the hosted species may not recognize the plant or be harmed by ingesting a different species with an unfamiliar chemical composition.

Optimal Conditions

This species grows best in places with full sun and dry soils. However, it can also tolerate shade and moist places and pretty much any soil that is well-drained. The seeds will benefit from being cold stratified before being planted.

Uses for Holly-leaf Cherry

This shrub to small tree can be used as a large hedge that is similar to holly in California (Leonard Coates Nursery Co. 1912). This plant has been noted as being good for coastal gardens (gardenia.net) and has been used to stabilize eroded slopes (USDA Forest Service_pdf).

References

  • Borchert, Mark and Claudia M. Tyler. 2010. Dessication Sensitivity and Heat Tolerance of Prunus ilicifolia Seeds Dispersed by American Black Bears (Ursus americanus). Western North American Naturalist 70: 457-466.
  • Bullock, Stephen H. 1981. Aggregation of Prunus ilicifolia (Rosaceae) during Dispersal and its Effect on Survival and Growth. Madrono 28: 94-95.
  • Burk, Jack H., Eugene C. Jones, William A. Ryan, John A. Wheeler. 2007. Floodplain Vegetation and Soils along the Upper Santa Ana River, San Bernardino County, California. Madrono 54: 126-137.
  • Claremont Nurseries. 1913. Henry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog.
  • Copper, William S. 1922. The Broad-Sclerophyll Vegetation of California: An Ecological Study of the Chaparral and its Related Communities. Carnegie Institution of Washington v. 319 series 435, 452, 467, and 475.
  • Dowell, R. V., J.M. Scriber, and R.C. Lederhouse. 1990. Survival of Papilio rutulus Lucas (Lepidoptera: Papilionidae) larvae on 42 potential host plants. Pan-Pacific Entomologist 66 (2): 140-146.
  • Emmel, John F. and Thomas C. Emmel. 1963. Larval Food-Plant Records for Six Western Papilios. Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera 1(3): 191-193.
  • Gaines, John F. 1964. Vegetative Key for the Identification of the Prinicipal Non-Desert Shrubs of Los Angeles County. California Geographer 5: 23-36.
  • Keifer, H.H. 1931. California Microlepidoptera V. (Gelechiidae). The Pan-Pacific Entomologist 8: 61-73.
  • Leonard Coates Nursery Company. 1912. Henry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog.
  • McFarland, Noel. 1965. The Moths (Macroheterocera) of a chaparral plant association in the Santa Monica mountains of southern California. Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera 4 (1): 43-73.
  • Mullaly, Don P. 1994. Some Results and Implications of the 1947-1951 Drought near Los Angeles. Crossosoma 20(1): 49-74.
  • Plummer, Fred G. 1911. Chaparral: Studies in the dwarf forests, or elfin-wood, of southern California. Washington, DC: US Forest Service) no. 85.
  • Rengers, Francis K., Luke A. McGuire, Nina S. Oakley, Jason W. Kean, and Dennis M. Tang. 2020. Landslides after wildfire: initiation, magnitude, and mobility. Landslides 17 (11): 2631-2641.
  • Sargent, Charles Sprague. 1892. The Silva of North America: a description of the trees which grow naturally in North America exclusive of Mexico. (Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company).
  • Shreve, Forrest. 1936. The Transition from Desert to Chaparral in Baja California. Madrono 3: 257-264.
  • Sudworth, George B. 1927. Check list of the forest trees of the United States, their names and ranges. (Washington, DC: US Forest Service) no. 92.
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Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe is a professional ecologist and botanist who has worked as the State Ecologist of Delaware and as an ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He is also a former Past-President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. He currently is an innkeeper at McMullen House Bed & Breakfast LLC and a web designer and owner for Silphium Design LLC.

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