Holly (Ilex) has been the quintessential winter holiday (holy day) decorating green since the Druids first hung it over doorways to snag evil spirits at the threshold.
Early Christians harvested it for their own growing traditions, though the thorny leaves and blood-red berries are more emblematic of Good Friday than Jesus' pastoral birth. Murky symbolism aside, appreciation for beauty is probably the real reason you can buy berry-laden holly branches from Thanksgiving on.
"This is the time of year that the berries are at their best," says Ron Solt, owner of Solt Garden Nursery in Barto, Pa., and president of the Holly Society of America (HSA).
Beautiful and adaptable, hollies range from low sprawling shrubs to 50-plus-foot trees, offering lots of options for landscaping (to say nothing of great habitat and winter forage for birds). Hollies can be specimen trees, hedges, screening, or low-tech anti-burglar devices beneath windows. And when happy, they are long-lived.
"[Ilex] 'Nellie R. Stevens' originally came from a holly tree in Oxford that is 104 years old," says Bill Kuhl, owner of McLean Nurseries in Baltimore.
There are about 400 varieties of holly, both evergreen and deciduous, including the native American holly tree (Ilex opaca), shrubby Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) and English holly (Ilex aquifolium). Hollies offer a range of leaf configurations and berry colors. For example, prickly leafed deck-the-halls Ilex opaca 'Miss Helen,' has fire-engine red fruits, while I. Xanthocarpa 'Boyce Thompson' has butter-colored berries, and I. 'Morgan's Gold,' has berries the color of doubloons.
"And I. 'Blush' fruit is kind of a primrose color with a flush on it," says Solt. "They are like jewels."
Smooth-leafed evergreen types include Longstalk holly (Ilex pedunculosa) whose berries hang from its branches like clusters of little cherries, and Inkberry (Ilex glabra), a native shrub named for its small, close-packed black fruits. Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a deciduous native, is a thicket of leafless twigs crammed with crimson berries in winter, while the branches of deciduous Finetooth holly (Ilex serrata 'Leucocarpa') sport wads of cream-colored fruits.
While hollies generally do well here in Maryland, not all species tolerate our wildly swinging climate. English hollies in particular prefer their own misty-isle mild and damp, though there are some terrific hybrids for our region like 'Dragon Lady,' an upright 10- to 12-foot tree with blue-green foliage and bright red berries.
"It's very narrow so it's suitable for the corner of a house or a garden focal point, and it grows naturally very tight," says Ann Hedgepeth, retail manager at Speakman Nurseries in Still Pond.
Koehneana hollies, hybrids of English holly and Lusterleaf holly (Ilex latifolia) are another group well adapted for our region.
"The leaf is almost like a magnolia," says Kuhl. "They grow fast and do well, but [because of the non-spiny leaves] are not the best for deer resistance."
American holly is our regional native with a number of great cultivars like I. 'Baltimore Buzz' and I. 'Glen Ellen.' I. 'Satyr Hill' was discovered as a volunteer seedling at McLean Nurseries and was the Holly Society of America's Holly of the Year for 2003. And now, besides all the other permutations on height, shape, leaf type, and berry, there are subtle choices in leaf color. The blue-leafed hollies (Ilex x meserveae) are heavily berried evergreen shrubs with names like Ilex 'China Girl,' I. 'Blue Girl,' and I. 'Blue Princess,' while the reds boast Ilex 'Red Cardinal,' I. 'Little Red Robin,' I. 'Oak Leaf, and the most recent introduction, Ilex 'Red Beauty.'
Hollies are dioecious -- plants are either male or female. As a rule, the female won't produce berries without a male close by. But timing is key. The pair needs to flower at the same time for successful pollination to occur. I. 'Edward Stevens' is a compatible mate for I. 'Nellie R. Stevens,' -- in general American holly males are good pollinators for American females. But, there are also exceptions.
"A few hollies are sterile. And some Chinese hollies may be parthenocarpic," says Kuhl, "that is, they will set fruit without pollination."
Holly Society of America
P.O. Box 803
Millville, NJ 08332-0803
Solt Garden Nursery
85 Greenhouse Lane
Barto, PA 19504-9026
no Web site
McLean Nurseries in Baltimore
9000 Satyr Hill Rd.
Baltimore, MD 21234
no Web site
Holly Ridge Nursery
5925 S. Ridge Road West
Geneva, OH 44041
444 E. Main St.
Westminster, MD 21157
990 Tetherow Road
Williams, OR 97544