Have a Holly Jolly Holiday

Have a Holly Jolly Holiday

Michelle Wallace, Consumer Horticulture Agent – Durham County

Hollies are a part of the Aquifoliacea family which, translated from Latin means ‘acute leaf’.  There are many species of hollies which can be found growing in a wide range of climate zones from the tropics to more temperate environments.  Their red winter berries which contrast against the dark green foliage have come to represent one of the symbols of Christmas.  Many individuals at this time of year will trim their outdoor hollies for indoor decorating, as the leaves and berries will retain their look for several weeks after cutting.  Hollies perform well in a variety of soils, including heavy poorly drained wet soils, depending on the species.

What you may not know about hollies is that they are predominately dioecious.  This mean there are both male and female plants. Both male and female hollies flower, but only female hollies will produce the berries.  Wondering why your holly plant isn’t producing berries?  It could be one of three reasons: 1) It is a male.  2) It’s a female without a male plant nearby. 3) Incompatible males and females.  My kids are always surprised when I tell them that some plants are male and female and they won’t reproduce unless both a male and female is present.

While most people are familiar with the evergreen hollies, many are surprised to find out that there are deciduous hollies as well.  These hollies lose their leaves in the winter – yet they retain their berries – making them quite spectacular in the winter.  Commonly referred to as winterberry, Ilex verticillata, is a shrub that ranges in size from medium to large depending on size and species.  A relatively new variety, Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’ only gets 5’ tall and wide (the male counterpart is ‘Apollo’ or ‘Jim Dandy’) while ‘Sparkleberry’ can grow to be 12’ tall and 10’ wide.  These hollies can form a harem of as many as 5 females to 1 male plant.

There are specimen hollies as well.  A specimen plant is a plant that is attractive year round, it typically has a sculptural element as well.  Ilex vomitoria ‘Pendula’ commonly called weeping yaupon holly, is an evergreen holly that can grow to be 25’ tall and 15’ wide with beautiful fall/winter translucent red berries.  All holly berries are toxic to humans.  Birds however, depend on them in the winter for their diet.  Long ago, Native Americans, would induce ritualistic vomiting for ceremonial cleansing using the berries from the yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), hence the reference to “vomit” in the scientific name.

Hollies serve many purposes in the garden.  Upright tree form or large shrubby hollies make good screens.  Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ (pollinated by any male Ilex cornuta species) and ‘Emily Brunner’ (‘James Swan’ is the male pollinator) make good screens or barriers.  There are several Chinese and Japanese holly species that are small to medium in size and make good foundation plantings.  The Chinese hollies, Ilex cornuta species have the larger spiny leaves while the Japanese hollies, Ilex crenata species have much smaller less spiny leaves.  These hollies are unisexual having both male and female flowers on the same plant.  They also do not produce the beautiful red berries typically associated with hollies.

Regardless of your need, hollies can make a great addition to your garden coming in a multitude of sizes and shapes to fit your need.  To learn more about hollies go to http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-639.html .  If you need help answering your garden questions contact the Durham County Extension Master Gardener Volunteers at 919-560-0528 or email your questions to mastergardener@dconc.gov .