Deck home and garden with festive hollies
Bearing green leaves during the dead of winter, evergreen holly is the subject of pagan beliefs and European folklore as well as traditional English carols. Think of “deck the halls with boughs of holly” and “The Holly and the Ivy.” English Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is the plant these songs celebrate.
When the new world settlers saw American holly (Ilex opaca), they embraced its familiarity, planting it near many colonial homes. George Washington included holly on his own Mt. Vernon estate.
After spending Christmas 1926 in Virginia, the bishop of Aberdeen, Scotland, wrote, “In every window hangs a holly wreath, and a holly wreath on every door.” We continue the winter tradition in our own homes by decorating with sprigs, wreaths and swags of evergreen holly.
Native to Virginia, American holly, which sports spine-tipped deep green leaves and bright red berries, is the holly Richmonders think of at yuletide. One cultivar is even named ‘Merry Christmas.’
American holly grows as a pyramidal tree from 25 to 60 feet high. It likes sun to partial shade, and serves as a woodland tree. It grows in well-drained soil that is moist, acidic and sandy.
As are many hollies, American Holly is dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female plants. A male is needed to provide pollen for sexual fertilization and the subsequent fruit set, with the female bearing the berries.
The ratio is typically one male for ten female plants. The male and female holly plants must belong to the same species, must be planted in the same vicinity, and must bloom at the same time.
The Ilex genus contains more than 780 evergreen species of trees and shrubs. Among those, there is a wide range of shapes, sizes and types. Here are a few with green leaves and stereotypical red berries:
Although English Holly does not do particularly well in our heat and heavy soils, cultivars with white variegated leaf margins such as ‘Argenteomarginata’ are very distinctive.
A native plant, Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria), is a tall shrub or small tree ranging from 10 to 20 feet tall. Although it has thick bunches of red berries in fall, its small gray-green leaves are oval without spines. It can tolerate poor dry soils as well as wetland locations. A dwarf cultivar, ‘Nana,’ grows 3 to 5 feet tall but spreads to 6 feet wide.
Chinese Holly (Ilex cornuta) has very glossy, prickly leaves. “Cornuta” means horned; on the leaves of many Chinese Hollies, the central spine points down, while the two on either side point up like horns. They are one of the few hollies that produce berries without male pollination.
One of the most popular cultivars is ‘Burfordii.’ A Burford Holly can be grown as a large, dense shrub, or limbed up into a small tree. A dwarf form of ‘Burfordii’ with slightly puckered leaves grows to about 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide.
Numerous hybrid hollies make beautiful indoor decorations and outside trees or shrubs. Read more about each one to ensure that you select the right plant for the right place. Here are a few choices:
Although used by my home builder as a foundation shrub, Nellie Stevens Holly (Ilex × ‘Nellie R. Stevens’) is actually a small tree and is not appropriately placed near a house. It is a cross between English and Chinese Holly, grows rapidly, and bears prolific red berries. This variety is self-pollinating; however, berry production can be increased by most any Chinese Holly males.
Another choice is a cross of the English Holly called Meserve Holly or Blue Holly (Ilex ×meserveae). Foliage is blue-green and glossier than the American Holly, with spines that aren’t as sharp. Blue Hollies are very cold hardy. It is the female that has red berries. Blue Hollies grow to about 7 feet high.
China Girl and China Boy Holly (Ilex ×meserveae ‘Mesog’ and ‘Mesdob’) are related to Blue Hollies. They are dense mounding shrubs. China Girl will produce red berries if China Boy is nearby.
For narrow spaces, Dragon Lady Holly (Ilex ×aquipernyi Dragon Lady) is an upright columnar holly with very spiny traditionally shaped leaves and red berries.
Foster’s Holly (Ilex ×attenuata ‘Fosteri’) grows 20 feet tall and narrow. It has spine-tipped leaves and numerous, attractive berries.
In addition to providing holiday décor and visual pleasure in the landscape, members of the genus Ilex support a solitary bee, and their fruits attract birds and other wildlife. Hollies are resistant to damage by deer.
Remember that, when harvesting branches for decorations, you are pruning your tree or shrub. Make sure to follow proper pruning techniques. Then you’ll have a jolly holly-day by decorating with evergreen sprigs and branches.
For a Virginia Cooperative Extension publication about evergreen hollies, visit http://bit.ly/evergreen-hollies.
Lela Martin is a Master Gardener with the Chesterfield County office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension.