Hollies, berry nice!

Before finishing up here today we’ll have a good idea of the number of hollies in the garden. I haven’t counted (and won’t), but I’m guessing the number will be a dozen, and possibly a few more. I suppose that I can recall all the varieties, and then how many of each are planted, so I’ll compare at the end to see if I’m at least close. To cover all the hollies adequately I suspect I’ll have to go into a second day, but we’ll figure that out when we near the end today.

The purpose for this inventory is to highlight some wonderful broadleaf evergreens. Today, in mid December most of the hollies are covered with red berries. On some hollies the berries are bunched in clusters at the branch tips, while others have berries along the length of the branches. I don’t grow the hollies only for the berries, but also because I favor their dark foliage and pyramidal form, whether used as an evergreen screen from neighboring properties, or as an anchor to neighboring plants.American holly in early December

A good starting point in this listing is the American holly (Ilex opaca, above). This is the only native of the garden’s hollies, and all of the Opaca hollies in the garden are seedlings that randomly popped up, mostly in partially shaded areas where I suppose birds deposited the seed. Some have been transplanted around, but most have been allowed to grow where they sprouted. There’s no doubt that I’ve chopped out many dozens over the years since there are only so many thirty feet tall hollies that will fit in any garden. American holly seedling 2

I’ll count one American holly towards the total inventory since only one has grown above head high, and this is the only one that has yet displayed any berries. The berries are sparse compared to the other hollies, and they are dull red and not at all glossy. The American hollies are quite slow growing, and they are sparsely branched until their middle age when they begin to thicken up a bit. The foliage is a dull green, nothing remarkable by comparison to other dark and glossy leafed hollies, but still, the native holly grows to be a magnificent evergreen once it has gained some size.

American holly seedling 3

I find it interesting that every American holly seedling has a different leaf shape (two photos above). There are varying number of spines, and some leaves are wider or more narrow. None of this is unusual in plants growing from seed, and this is perhaps a subject for another day, but it interests me and this is part of the reason I allow so many of the seedlings to remain.Nellie Stevens holly in early December

The natural starting point in discussing the non-native and hybrid hollies is to begin with the ubiquitous ‘Nellie Stevens’ (Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’, above). This holly is seemingly found in half the landscapes east of the Mississippi, but I’ve been around enough to know that this is with some good cause. ‘Nellie Stevens’ has good, medium dark green foliage, and it grows quickly enough and full enough to earn high marks. I regularly recommend this holly, but there is only one in the garden.Mary Nell holly in December

Several hollies in the garden are similar in appearance to ‘Nellie Stevens’, and their growth habit is not so much different. ‘Mary Nell’ and ‘Robin’ are indistinguishable from a distance, though the spined foliage of ‘Mary Nell’ (above) gives it a distinct texture at closer range that I favor.Patriot holly in late November

‘Robin’ has few berries this year, and the abundant berries of ‘Mary Nell’ have not fully ripened to red. ‘Robin’ was part of a group of hollies marketed for awhile as Red Hollies, for all had conspicuous red new growth. I planted a sampling of these when they were first introduced, and several (‘Little Red’, ‘Cardinal’, ‘Festive’, and ‘Patriot’, above) have faded from popular commerce.

This is quite enough for one day, and I hesitate to admit that as I’ve compiled a list there are far more hollies in the garden than I estimated. I suppose this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In the second chapter there will be many more berries, so please check back in at the start of the week.


4 thoughts on “Hollies, berry nice!

  1. I appreciate this topic! In my small yard I have four hollies, two of the Nellie Stevens, a Dragon Lady Holly and to keep her company a Blue Prince Holly. I have noticed the large number of red berries on the Nellie Stevens and wonder it has anything to do with the fact that I trimmed it slightly to better see the bird feeders. The berries seem most abundant in the area I trimmed. Hollies bring back so many wonderful memories and are my privacy screen (such as it is) in the winter. Thanks for the topic! PS I’ve heard they like peat moss and this fall added a little to the base of each. Frederick, Maryland

    • If you pruned your hollies prior to flowering this could have resulted in more branching, and more flowering. Also, if the area you cut now has more sun exposure, this could encourage flowering and berries. Hollies prefer acidic soils, and peat moss will increase acidity. However, your soil is probably adequately acidic without amending with peat. I have not fertilized any of the hollies in my garden for years, and many hollies ten years and older have probably never been fertilized. I would only fertilize hollies if the foliage color begins to fade, but this is rare in most soils.

  2. Thoroughly enjoy your periodic postings, whether it be on hollies or Japanese maples, or whatever. We’ve planted four hollies, purchased from your facility, but my question is about a “native” or “wild” holly. It appeared on the edge of a wooded patch, and it’s in light shade. It’s a rather erect tree (4 feet), but doesn’t seem to have berries. I’ve just left it alone for more than 10 years, but am wondering if a bit of fertilizer, or more sun, would benefit my little native visitor.

    • American hollies are dioecious, so there are separate male and female plants. Both flower, but only females berry. Seedlings will be roughly equal numbers of male and female plants, but female plants do not flower until later than males, sometimes as late as nine years old. So, your holly might be a male, and if so it will not get berries.

      Growing in shade does effect flowering and berry production, so the more shade the fewer berries. Fertilizing should have no effect, though providing a female holly with more sun will encourage berries.

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