Deciduous hollies, sans leaves, shine
Posted: Tuesday, December 7, 2010 8:01 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams
‘Twas ever thus from childhood’s hour...
My fondest hopes would not decay;
I never loved a tree or flower
Which was the first to fade away.
— Charles Stuart Calverley
That’s just one of the reasons hollies hold such a prominent place in my heart. They are definitely not the first to fade away.
In fact, some of them never do fade away, speaking here of an annual basis, not the final and inevitable death throes which beset all living things. Hollies — most of them anyway — are year-round attractions.
Evergreen hollies we will get to anon, that is to say, sometime in the next few weeks. But for today we will expand on last week’s introduction to our series on winter attractions, including berries, bark and foliage. That effort described some of the deciduous (leaf-shedding) hollies that show off their huge loads of berries all winter sans the distraction of foliage.
Winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata) consist of several named varieties and a few hybrids with other species. Akin is one of those other species, Ilex decidua, that specific epithet describing its leaf-shedding properties. Both of these species are native, with the latter being more common in the south, while the former may be more plentiful in the north.
Ilex decidua is commonly called possumhaw. I presume possums eat the berries, or “haws,” the red fruits which show from afar after the leaves are shed. Most possumhaws are found in fencerows, where birds undoubtedly plant them after they pass through their digestive tracts, though bottomlands are rife with them as well.
There was (maybe still is) a huge specimen on the bank of Bailey Fork Creek in Springville bottom near where we had a duck blind (still in use by others). During duck season it was a sight when laden with fruit as we passed by in a boat on the way to the blind. Many a branch was severed for Christmas decorations from that tree.
Possumhaw is a fine cultivated plant and can be moved from the wild, though nursery grown stock is more reliable, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, young trees move more easily than older ones, and fruiting does not begin until a tree is several years old. A female tree must be obtained to have fruit, with a male nearby. Young trees cannot be positively identified. Nursery stock grown in containers can be purchased while in berry, thus leaving no doubt as to gender. Don’t forget to get a compatable male when you buy your female.
Named female varieties include Warren’s Red, which will grow to 20 feet or more; Byers Golden, with yellow fruit, and Council Fire, lower growing with orange-red berries. Red Escort is a compatable male for any of them and, as well, the females will be successfully pollinated by one of the native evergreen American hollies, if one is nearby.
Another deciduous holly, Sparkleberry must not be overlooked. This is a hybrid between Ilex verticillata and Ilex serrata, a Japanese species. It bears enormous crops of red berries and grows to 12 feet or more. Joe and Diane Mahan have these, pollinated by a verile male of some sort or another, that are just about 12 feet tall after only five years or so and light up their back garden in winter. Some anonymous expert on hollies recommended them.
Last, but not least, except in stature, is a variety of Ilex serrata Koshobai. This dwarf (to three feet) is a charmer, with the decided advantage of being self fertile. No dallying around trying to find a compatable male.
Koshobai consistently and from a young age bears big crops of tiny red berries half the size of a pinhead. I am on my second specimen (the first died intestate and left no issue), and it is now three years old from a 6-inch plant. In a hypertufa trough with several dwarf conifers, the holly is now about two feet across and 18 inches tall. As we speak it is loaded with those tiny berries, setting off all the other greens in the container.
Alas, it has been one of the most difficult to locate plants I have ever desired. No retail outlet I have ever visited carried them and mail order has been my only recourse. Orders from west coast nurseries in 3-inch pots have either arrived already dead or sick. In my last attempt I ordered four, and one lived. Some retailers are on the internet with gallon plants ranging from $30 to $40. I have a hunch those bigger sizes would be more successful than the tiny ones I have tried.
Next: evergreen hollies.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 12.7.10
Jimmy Williams, The Garden Path