Holly season is here, just in time for Christmas
Posted: Tuesday, December 14, 2010 8:01 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams
Where in the world to start when discussing evergreen hollies? It is hopeless to try and cover them all, so we’ll hit the highlights, mostly of those with which I have had experience, good or bad.
We all know evergreen hollies are native to this area and, indeed, almost all of the southern two-thirds of the United States.
From childhood we have collected branches of the females with their load of berries for Christmas decorations. I can remember as a boy selling those boughs door-to-door in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Most of those natives are beset with leaf-spot that disfigures the foliage but is not fatal. We never thought anything about it until better named varieties came on the market that didn’t have the problem.
Now there are many of them, both male and female (you must have both to get berries) with excellent, glossy leaves that rival English hollies.
I won’t enumerate them because there are too many, but to list a couple of females: Jersey Princess has an abundance of berries and excellent foliage, and does well in this area. Canary bears yellow berries, as you would imagine, and has good foliage as well.
All American hollies (they are Ilex opaca) are agonizingly slow, but copious fertilizer will push them some. I have a specimen of Canary, now some five feet tall, that must be at least 10 years old.
Chinese hollies are Ilex cornuta. They are tough and easy to grow, and have finer foliage than American hollies. The problem is they are marginally winter hardy here. The best known variety is Burfordii. It is a widely sold plant. In the horrendous winters of the 1980’s, these were wiped off the map by the millions all over the southeast.
My several specimens were reduced to stumps at least three times by 15-below-zero temperatures, but all re-sprouted from below and are now well established, where they patiently wait for another killer winter.
One of the most popular woody plants in southeastern nurseries is Dwarf Burfordii holly. Dwarf is a relative term. I have one of them, planted in 1974, that is fully 18 feet tall and at least as wide. Dwarf Burfordii can be kept lower by regular pruning. Both Burfordii and its dwarf are good for berries most years. Chinese hollies bloom on old wood, earlier than American hollies, and a late spring frost can prevent berrying.
Carissa grows to only four feet or so and bears no berries. It is widely used in foundation plantings. Rotunda is similar, but grows to eight feet in time.
While we’re in the Orient, what about Japanese hollies, Ilex crenata? The botanical name may be similar, but the plants are not. Japanese hollies have small, rounded leaves with no spines. They are mostly smaller and used as foundation plantings.
Best known is Compacta. This one will grow to six feet or more, but is easily kept much lower. I have had trouble with root-rot (I think that is what it was) with Compacta, but not so much with the similar Helleri and Soft Touch. The latter is the best of the three, in my opinion, with glossier foliage. Berries are not a factor in Japanese hollies, though some have small black fruit.
Upright types include Jersey Pinnacle and Steeds. Kept sheared, these make excellent cones to six feet or so for those in the beachball and tepee mode. Steeds seems to be replacing Jersey Pinnacle, though they are virtually indistinguishable. Steeds may grow faster.
Sky Pencil is popular, growing very narrow and tall, to 10 feet. This is a good accent plant, but tends to form many leaders and splay open under heavy weather.
I yearn for longstalk holly, Ilex pedunculosa. Alas, I’ve not found it in any nursery. It is said to grow somewhat awkwardly, but bear its red berries on peduncles or extended stems, as the name implies. The berries are thus held well away from the foliage.
A failure with me, and numerous others, has been with the English holly, Ilex aquifolium. It is too bad, since English holly has the finest foliage of all hollies, and bears big crops of red berries. In fact, it is so beautiful it is sold by the stem in upscale shops at Christmas. The variegated ones, with a cream colored edge on the leaves and clusters of red berries, make me drool. I have failed with it too many times and finally gave up. English hollies detest heat and humidity, with which we are well endowed.
Next: Christmas is coming; more hollies.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 12.14.10
Jimmy Williams, The Garden Path