One group of plants that I find particularly attractive at this time of year are hollies. They glitter in the winter sun and give structure to our gardens. They can be the workhorses in the countryside. They can be used in many different ways in the garden. They are hardy plants, tolerant of a range of soils and growing conditions, deer resistant, and there are many different species that can brighten any landscape.
Hollies can be used to enhance any design and add contrast, texture, color, and structure like few other plants. They range in size from very short, 6 inches tall, to a towering giant 70 feet tall or more. The leaves can be prickly or spineless, and the berries can be red, orange, yellow, or black. They are a glittering symbol of life and steadfastness in winter.
Gardeners use the versatile holly in many different ways. You see them in parking lots that are planted where they don’t want people to go, rerouting traffic, and hoping the prickly leaves will keep people from walking in that area. They are used as foundation plants around houses. Holly like the American holly and the Nellie Stevens variety are great as a privacy hedge to secure traffic or unsightly areas. They can also be used as a single, beautiful specimen tree.
I visited the Leven Hall garden in England where they had just replaced an enormous number of box trees that had succumbed to box rot. They replaced these box trees with dwarf caves so they wouldn’t have to fight this disease again. I was amazed because I just assumed it was box hedges that bordered all the beds in the topiary garden.
Sometimes hollies are so common that we forget about them. You can see them growing in the forest, especially in places where the soil is more humid. The American holly grows in the forests from Massachusetts to Florida, west to Texas and Missouri and is adapted to a variety of site conditions. It grows best on well-drained, acidic sandy soils or soils that have been tilled with organic matter, but tolerates those that are somewhat poorly drained.
Here are some things you should know about hollies. First, they are dioecious, which means that a male and female flower are borne on separate plants. Both must be in place to ensure the plant is producing berries. A male holly in a neighborhood is often enough to pollinate the female flowers that turn into berries. Bees pollinate these wonderful plants remarkably well. So if you only have one holly in your garden and it produces berries, then your neighbor has the male plant in their garden.
Hollies are such a large group of plants that you can’t be too specific when talking about the entire group of hollies. Hollies belong to the genus Ilex and contain around 600 species of wood trees and shrubs, as well as myriad hybrids. In order to have a prefusion of berries, these plants need full sun, but they take partial sun.
I have a good friend, Ray Head, who is knowledgeable about Hollies and who was president of the American Holly Society. Ray knows more about Hollies than anyone I’ve met. His favorite group are the American hollies, the Opaca varieties. He says the best are Dan Fenton, Satyr Hill, Miss Helen, Emily, Helen Hahn, Red Velvet, Morgan Gold, Villanova. Wow what many names to remember and he just called them like they were his grandchildren.
I asked Ray why are the American hollies such a great tree? He said if he roots Hollies it will take them 10 years to reach their potential, but once they do they keep getting better and will be here for the next 100 years. Ray has an extensive collection of Hollies, possibly the largest private collection in the country.
I have some hollies that I think are great and that I wouldn’t want to be without. I love my “Patriot” holly because of its beautiful pyramid shape that gives my less formal garden a slightly formal look. “Liberty” is another pretty holly with glossy leaves and bright red berries that peaks around Christmas but also stands out when there are no berries. The holly “Oakleaf” has an unusual shape of the leaf like an oak. It happens to be a seedling from “Mary Nell” and is part of the red series. This group is easy to grow and matures fairly quickly.
If you are interested in Hollies, you should join the American Holly Society (www.hollysocam.org). You will learn a lot about hollies and you might be delighted to learn their value in the countryside. I love my garden in winter and that’s partly because I have beautiful green plants like the hollies that shimmer in the winter sun.
Betty Montgomery is a master gardener and author of “Hydrangeas: How to Grow, Cultivate and Enjoy” and “A Four Seasons Garden in the South”. She can be reached at [email protected]