Alchornea aquifolia

native holly


Alchornea aquifolia

(Js.Sm.) Domin 1927

pronounced: al-KOR-nee-uh ack-wee-FOH-lee-uh

(Euphorbiaceae — the spurge family)

synonym — Alchornea ilicifolia

(Js.Sm.) Müll.Arg. 1865

pronounced: al-KOR-nee-uh ill-ick-ee-FOH-lee-uh

synonym —Coelebogyne ilicifolia

Js.Sm. 1839

pronounced: koh-el-ee-BOH-gin-nee ill-ick-ee-FOH-lee-uh

common name: native holly

native 4Alchornea is named for Stanesby Alchorne (1727-1800), an English botanist on the staff of the Chelsea Physic Garden; aquifolia refers to its likeness to the holly tree (Ilex aquifolium); ilicifolia is from the Latin ilex, holly, and folium, a leaf – having leaves like holly. In the second synonym, Coelebogyne is from the Greek κοιλος (koilos), hollow, and γυνη (gyné), a woman, referring to the concave stigma. In Australia the plant is still often known as Alchornea ilicifolia.

This shrub, or, rarely, small tree, is found down the eastern coastal strip of Australia from about Port Douglas in Queensland to central NSW. It grows in monsoon forest or the drier types of rainforest. Allan Cunningham collected three specimens in 1829, and John Smith described the plant from these specimens in 1839, naming it Coelebogyne ilicifolia. The Swiss botanist Johann Müller transferred it to Alchornea in 1865. I have not been able to unearth the whole story as to why the Czech botanist Karl Domin, who visited Australia in 1909-1910 and subsequently made many taxonomic changes, changed the specific to aquifolia, but it was something to do with an earlier synonym for the plant, Sapium aquifolium.

The native holly can grow up to 6 m high with a stem diameter of 10 cm or more. The trunk is usually crooked, the bark smooth and pale grey in colour, except for the smaller branches, which are greenish or fawn.

The leaves are very like those of the holly, and are up to 8 by 5 cm in size, ovate or rhombic in shape, with 3 or 4 teeth on each side. The teeth and the tip of the leaf are pointed and sharp. The leaves are stiff and hairless, with a hard and shiny surface, and pale on the underside. There are 3 or 4 lateral veins almost at right angles to the midrib. The petioles are only about 3 mm long.

The plant is dioecious; greenish male flowers appear, usually in November, on racemes. The female flowers are more-or-less solitary, and not numerous, their stigmas lobed or laciniate.

The fruits are green, then brown, capsules, sparsely pubescent, more-or-less depressed globular, 3-lobed, about 7 by 10 mm in size; the calyx and stigmas persist.

With its interesting leaves it makes quite an attractive garden shrub. Propagation is best by cuttings, as the seeds are very slow to germinate. As the plant self-sows easily, this suggests that there is probably a period of dormancy before germination. The native holly enjoys semi-shade, well-drained soil, extra nutrients, and mulch, but can put up with a certain amount of neglect.

This is a food plant for the Common Albatross butterfly, Appias paulina, also known as the Christmas Island White or the Ceylon Lesser Albatross

Photographs taken in Gustav Creek forest, Nelly Bay, 2015
Page last updated 2nd October 2018