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All Thing You Should Know About Holly Days
When the halls are all decked, stop to admire the boughs of holly. Thick, durable leaves, brightly colored berries that birds love, looks good in winter-this is a shrub that deserves a place in every yard. And fortunately, the holly family comprises 400 different species, so every gardener-regardless of climate, soil conditions or style-can grow them. Here are a few fine choices, and then some hints for planting and tending them.
English holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a native of Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia. Its glossy foliage is either deep-green or marked with yellow, cream, or silver. Its berries are bright red. High humidity and cool summers-English weather-are ideal for English holly, which is why it thrives along the East Coast up to southern New England or in the Pacific Northwest. It does not do well where summers blistering hot and dry, such as the Southwest.
As a native adapted to our climate, American holly(I. opaca) is much more suitable for most North American gardens than English holly. It grows well from the very southern parts of New England, south to Florida and west to Texas. (The famous maze at the Governor’s Mansion in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia is made from American holly.) Although recommended for sunny spots, American holly will tolerate some shade. And it is tough enough for seaside gardens. Its spiny leaves are less glossy than those of English holly.
Inkberry (Ilex glabra) is the hardiest evergreen holly. It has 1- to 2-inch leaves and black or white berries. Found in swampy areas in the East, inkberry grows in wet or well-drained soil. And it tolerates shade and dry, windy sites. Seaside gardeners find it especially valuable. Also called gallberry or Appalachian tea, inkberry makes a fine hedge.
Blue hollies or Meserve hybrids (Ilex X Meserveae) have glossy, blue-green foliage like the English type and they form nice hedges. They are particularly cold-tolerant evergreens.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), sometimes called black alder, is the hardiest native holly. It grows from Georgia to southern Canada in swampy areas but does not require wet soil. It prefers acid soil and tolerates shade. Unlike the other hollies mentioned here, it is not evergreen. The foliage turns black and drops after the first hard freeze, revealing generous clusters of bright-red, quarter-inch fruit that contrasts with the black branches. The fruit persists until January when hungry birds polish it off.
Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta) is a densely branched shrub or small tree. It has shiny, dark-green leaves that can be oval or so curled as to appear rectangular, with only single spines at the four corners. It bears large clusters of half-inch, orange-red fruit. Unlike most hollies, Chinese holly can produce fruit without pollination, so male plants aren’t necessary for a good show. This holly fares well in Southern gardens because it is drought tolerant. (And some specimens have withstood temperatures as high as 118 degrees F.)
Luster-leaf holly (Ilex latifolia), another choice for Southern gardens, can reach 60 feet at maturity. Its large, 3-to-6-inch leathery leaves are accented by clusters of small, red fruit. It is reliably hardy only to zone 8 or southern portions of zone 7.
Planting and Tending
Hollies are “dioecious,” meaning male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Only female plants produce berries, and in all but a few cases, they must be pollinated by nearby males to do so. Bees are the primary pollinators. Male plants can pollinate females of the same species growing within a half mile, or three or four city blocks. For best results, males should be within several hundred feet of females. Fortunately, named male varieties are available, and reputable nurseries label the plants’ sex whenever possible to help gardeners choose.
Plant hollies in spring before they begin to grow. That is before the buds begin to swell, but not after May 1 (earlier in the South). Early spring planting allows the plants to grow some roots before summer to help them withstand heat and drought. Dig a hole equal to the height of the root ball. You don’t need to amend the soil unless it is poorly drained or heavy clay. In that case, select a site on a slope and heavily work the soil—adding organic matter and sand—to encourage drainage or plant in raised beds.
Hollies are shallow-rooted, so avoid cultivating the soil around them after you’ve planted them. They benefit from a thick mulch of wood chips or pine needles, which retains water and keeps the roots cool during summer.
Feed hollies in early spring, by spreading a half-inch layer of compost, cottonseed meal or well-rotted manure around the base (about the diameter of the drip line).
Prune hollies at any time of the year except late summer or early fall. Dormant pruning is best, which fortunately means that clipping off branches for Christmas decorations is a fine idea. Once the basic shape of a plant is established, hollies actually require very little pruning from year to year. Annual trimming, however, helps thicken growth and enhance shape.
Where to See Hollies
If you want to see the hollies mentioned in this article and many more, spend a sunny winter day touring one of these extensive collections.
Ashumet Holly Reservation and Wildlife Sanctuary,
Falmouth, MA 02536
Missouri Botanical Garden
2315 Tower Grove Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63110
9414 Meadowbrook Lane
Philadelphia, PA 19118
JC Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University
Department of Horticultural Science
Box 7609, North Carolina State University
Raleigh NC, 27695-7609
U.S. National Arboretum
3501 New York Avenue, NE
Washington, DC 20002-1958
Washington Park Arboretum
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98105, Box 358010
Seattle, WA 98195-8010