By Dr. Susan Hamilton
Can you imagine the holidays without holly? The bright red berries and shiny green, needle-point leaves are found on wrapping paper and greeting cards, and fresh boughs grace front doors and fireplace mantles.
Decorating with holly is an ancient custom. The Druids believed that holly was sacred because it remained green all winter, and the Celtic people of Northern Europe decorated their homes with holly during the winter solstice, or Yule. The Chinese used holly to adorn temple courts and large halls during their New Year’s festivals in February. Holly was also used by the Romans during the Festival of Saturn to honor the Roman god of sowing and husbandry.
To meet the modern day demand for holiday decorating, orchards harvest as much as 3,000 pounds of holly per acre! Cut holly branches will last for weeks even out of water. To dress up your empty outside containers, stick in a few branches of holly and evergreen trimmings.
The holly family is huge, with hundreds of selections existing for almost every landscape situation. They make popular landscape plants because they are easy to grow. They can be deciduous or evergreen; small (18″) or large (over 50′); and colors are abundant. There are green forms, blue forms and forms with variegated foliage. Berries can be red, orange, yellow or black. Leaves may be small and spineless or large and armed. Their shape can vary, too, from columnar to rounded or weeping. They are used as stand-alone trees, in foundation plantings or hedges, and in mass plantings.
Most hollies are dioecious – male and female plants are required for cross pollination and berry production. Plant a male within 30′ to 40′ of females to ensure good fertilization and berry set. Hollies prefer to grow in moist, well-drained, acidic soils. Most do well in partial-shade to full-sun, but check with your local nursery for the particular requirements of the cultivars you select. To learn more about hollies and their characteristics, check out The Holly Society of America website, www.hollysocam.org.
The evergreen holly recognized as a U.S. favorite, with green leaves and red berries, is the English holly (Ilex aquifolium). In the South this plant is slow growing and benefits from partial to full-shade rather than direct sun. Both green and variegated selections are available. I like the green-leaved selections ‘Boulder Creek’, ‘Larry Peter’s’, ‘Cilata Major’ and ‘Beacon’.
Among the evergreen American holly (I. opaca) worth noting is ‘Old Heavy Berry’ (lots of fruit, as you can guess). ‘Croonenburg’ is unusual in that it bears both female and male blooms on the same plant, thus it may bear red fruit without a separate pollinator. ‘Steward’s Silver Crown’ is a popular variegated selection that bears red fruit.
Not every holly is an evergreen. Both Ilex decidua and Ilex verticillata have foliage that turns yellow and drops in the fall leaving branches loaded throughout the winter with bright red berries. Selections include ‘Warren Red’, ‘Council Fire’, ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Red Sprite’. The Holly Society of America chose ‘Red Sprite’ as the 2010 ‘Holly of the Year’ to encourage the use of this fantastic deciduous holly in the landscape.
So how about you? Will you deck your halls and landscape with boughs of holly this season?
Complete list of recommended hollies for Tennessee
If you’d like to grow your own holly for landscape beauty and home decorating, here are some of the best cultivars that also make showy specimens in your landscape, recommended by Dr. Sue Hamilton, director of the UT Gardens in Knoxville. For information on the Elmore Holly Collection in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, click here.
The evergreen recognized as a U.S. traditional favorite, with green leaves and red berries is the English holly (Ilex aquifolium). In the South it is slow growing and benefits from partial to full-shade rather than direct sun. Both green and variegated selections are available. Striking variegated selections include ‘Argentea’, ‘Crinkle Variegated’, ‘Marginata’, ‘Ivory’, ‘Moonbeam’ and ‘Rubricaulis Aurea’. Green-leaved selections I like include ‘Boulder Creek’, ‘Larry Peter’s’, ‘Cilata Major’ and ‘Beacon’.
The Altaclere holly (Ilex altaclerensis) is another evergreen that has lustrous dark-green leaves. Its relatively large, bright-red berries contrast nicely with the deep-green foliage. This pyramidal tree reaches from 20′ to 30′ tall at maturity. One excellent cultivar is ‘James G. Esson’.
There are many hybrids of the evergreen American holly (I. opaca) that are worth noting. One of the heaviest fruiting selections is ‘Old Heavy Berry’, and another very popular one for its shiny leaves and bright red fruit is ‘Jersey Princess’. ‘Croonenburg’ is unusual in that it bears both female and male blooms on the same plant, thus it may bear red fruit without a separate pollinator. It is a columnar, dense tree with glossy leaves that are less spiny than normal. ‘Steward’s Silver Crown’ is a variegated selection with leaves edged with cream that bears red fruit. Branches from trees such as this cultivar are frequently harvested for holiday decorations.
Numerous hybrid evergreen hollies exist that have all been bred for exceptional qualities. Ilex x ‘Red Beauty’ produces an eye-catching abundance of berries in the fall that many feel outperforms other evergreen hollies. Handsome, dark, glossy evergreen leaves create a densely branched pyramidal tree that grows to about 12’ tall and 5’ wide.
An example of an intermediate-sized holly is Ilex x ‘Little Red’. Little Red’s dense growth, red berries and compact nature (5′ x 5′) make it useful in smaller landscapes.
‘Blue Girl’ is the female counterpart to the ‘Blue Boy’ holly. The overall habit is pyramidal to around 8′ tall with super dark foliage and red berries.
‘Blue Maid’ is a fast growing female selection with deep, dark green foliage that assumes a pyramidal habit to 15′ tall. It offers abundant bright red fruit.
‘Dragon Lady’ is useful as a screen or hedge because of its strong pyramidal-columnar habit to 20′ tall with a 6′ spread. The leaves are spiny and dark green, while red fruit are produced using ‘Blue Stallion’ as a pollinator.
Not every holly is an evergreen. Deciduous hollies are valued for their loaded branches of striking red berries throughout the winter. Both Ilex decidua and Ilex verticillata have foliage that turns yellow and drops in the fall leaving branches loaded with bright red berries. Some good selections of deciduous holly include ‘Warren Red’, ‘Council Fire’, ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Red Sprite’.
The Holly Society of America has selected ‘Red Sprite’ as the 2010 “Holly of the Year” to promote and encourage the use of this fantastic deciduous holly in the landscape. Compared to other winterberries, ‘Red Sprite’ is fairly slow-growing and compact, maturing to just 3’ to 4’ in height and width. This size makes ‘Red Sprite’ particularly useful for smaller properties, and also for group plantings. ‘Red Sprite’ enjoys a sunny to partly shaded location. The plant is tolerant of moist soil, and will thrive in locations that remain wet for long periods in the spring, or after heavy rains. For best fruit set, plant an early flowering male winterberry nearby, such as ‘Jim Dandy’ or ‘Skipjack’.