Extension Educator, Horticulture
Not surprisingly, many ancient cultures in the temperate world revered evergreen plants. During the blinding cold of winter evergreens look as green and cheery as a summer's day. Ancient Romans believed holly warded off lightning strikes and witchcraft. Early Celtics used holly in their winter solstice celebrations. Holly continues in its long tradition as a winter decoration inside and outside the home.
Garden centers and florists sell lovely holly branches for winter decorations. Cut holly branches will last for weeks even out of water. To dress up those empty outside containers, stick in a few branches of holly, redtwig dogwood and evergreens.
Holly for fruit display in the landscape requires a bit of sex education. Hollies come as male or female plants. Both are needed for heavy fruit set. However, a single male can pollinate several females. How do you know if it's a male or female? Look under the leaves of course! Actually you would have to look closely at the flowers to sex an existing plant or wait to see which one has fruit. Fruit is produced on the females. When purchasing hollies their sex is usually quite clear with their sex appropriate names.
The Meserve hybrid hollies are known for their winter hardiness and durability. However any of the evergreen hollies appreciate a protected site out of wind and a bit of afternoon shade in summer. Soil should be moist, slightly acidic and well drained. If you are planning on adding hollies in the spring, prepare the soil now with plenty of compost and sulfur according to a soil test. The east side of a house is a prime location for evergreen hollies.
Of the Meserve hollies 'Blue Girl' and Blue Princess® and their corresponding 'Blue Boy' and Blue Prince® are good for our area. Blue Stallion® and Blue Maid® have lovely blue green leaves year around. Blue Stallion's® leaves are not quite as prickly so are better for high traffic areas. Although their leaves are not quite as blue-green as the Blue series China Boy® and China Girl® show good heat and cold tolerance.
The numerous holly species are a mixed bag of characteristics in leaf shapes, sizes, evergreen, deciduous, red fruits or black fruits. American Holly, Ilex opaca, has a grand red fruit display but allow plenty of room for these 30-foot trees. Japanese Holly, Ilex crenata, and Inkberry, Ilex glabra, are grown for their boxwood-like evergreen leaves and not for their black berries.
We may think of evergreen hollies first but some native deciduous hollies are worthy of our attention. 'Warren's Red' a cultivar of the North American native Possumhaw, Ilex decidua, is a particularly heavy fruiter.
Common Winterberry, Ilex verticillata, is native to moist to wet areas of eastern North America. Its durable background translates into a tough insect and disease resistant shrub. Winterberry is excellent massed in front of pine trees or next to ponds. It has a compact rounded habit of up to nine feet tall. The dark green deciduous leaves are rounded in contrast to the prickly leaves of most evergreen hollies. Fall color is yellow tinged with maroon.
Winterberry's pea-sized fruit are abundant, bright red and not obscured by the leaves. Even though the fruit ripens in September they hang on for dear life until December or January.
The fruit of cultivar 'Winter Red' decorates the landscape until March or April for a long lasting winter display. The slightly larger fruit tends to hold a pleasing bright red color longer. In summer the leaves are leathery dark green. 'Winter Red' can get 8-9 feet tall and wide. For smaller landscapes the cultivar 'Red Sprite' is best at only to 3-5 feet tall. An excellent Winterberry hybrid is 'Sparkleberry', an introduction from the U.S. National Arboretum.
Happy holly days!