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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Growing Holly

Probably the only question anyone ever asks me about holly is why theirs doesn't have berries on it. Everyone seems to plant holly because they want berries. I can see why—in an otherwise dreary winter landscape, a little splash of red is a welcome sight.

The trick to producing the highly sought after red berries is realizing that holly is another one of those plants that is dioecious, literally "two houses", meaning there is a separate male and female plant. Only the female plant will produce the berries, which develop after the female flowers are pollinated by the male flowers. Inside each berry is at least one seed for a new holly.

Complicating matters is that not all hollies are completely dioecious. Some are able to produce berries without pollination, though they are seedless, and less are produced than when flowers are pollinated. This phenomenon is called parthenocarpy, which comes from the Greek "carp" meaning "fruit" and "partheno" meaning "without fertilization".

The holly cultivar I ended up purchasing for my yard is 'Merry Berry', which is one of these parthenocarpic types. Honestly, I didn't know this when I bought them. It was late October, they were marked down to $1.50 per shrub, and I saw berries on each one of them. I could afford to buy then and do research later. At worst I'd have to sneak in a male holly somewhere in the landscape to provide pollen. I still may end up doing that, since while I have berries, berry production is much greater on these types with pollination.

Holly is a member of the genus Ilex. This genus has over 700 individual species distributed worldwide. Only about 150 of these species are cultivated for landscapes, and of these only about 40 species would be considered "common". There are literally thousands of cultivars developed from the cultivated species. Nearly all of the hollies grown today originated in China, Japan, Europe, or North America.

Generally speaking, hollies prefer a sunny location with well-drained soil. Some species have preferences as far as moisture and pH, but one reason they are so popular with homeowners is that although they have preferences, usually they will tolerate a wide range of conditions and stresses often present in home landscapes.

Ask anyone to draw a holly leaf and berries, and you will probably get an elongated shiny green leaf with spines arranged along the margins and a cluster of red berries. This is a good generalization, but many hollies do not look like this at all.

It is pretty standard for holly leaves to have spines, but not a rule. There are cultivars that have smooth leaves that are easily mistaken for boxwood. Others are so spiny it makes handling fallen leaves a painful exercise. Some hollies are evergreen, others lose their leaves in the fall. Leaf color also includes cultivars with a wide range of variegation. Also, while it is true that many hollies have red fruits, there are others with orange, yellow, or even black or white fruits.

Overall size also varies widely in hollies. Many times holly is part of a shrub border. Some are naturally small and compact. But many cultivars, if left to their own devices, would assume statures of fifteen feet or more. Some have reportedly reached heights of eighty feet or more.

Learn more about the wide range of legends surrounding holly and how it became associated with Christmas in my next blog post!

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