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Holly, a traditional plant in Christmas decorating, has been used for celebrations for many centuries. The ancient Romans carried holly in their processions, and decked images of their deities with its glistening leaves. In the more recent past it was commonly used in England as decoration during the Christmas season, a custom brought to the U.S. by early settlers.
There are more than 300 species of holly. It is found in almost all countries of the world in the temperate and sub-tropical regions. The native American holly was probably one of the first plants sighted by the pilgrims who settled at Plymouth in 1620.
The tree-type hollies, which grow to a height of about 40 feet, are desirable landscape plants from which branches may be cut for decorative use. The English holly, Ilex aquifolium, is the preferred species with glossy leaves and brilliant berries. Unfortunately it is not fully hardy in colder, higher elevations, but grows very well in the warmer sections of the state. The American holly, Ilex opaca, is similar to the English holly, but has slightly less attractive foliage and berries. It is, however, more hardy.
All hollies have male and female flowers on different plants. The berries are produced only on the female plants. In most cases it is good to have a male plant in the garden to provide for pollination if an abundant crop of berries is to be secured. If male plants in the community are sufficently close, pollen carried by wind or insects will sometimes result in berries.
Holly should not be planted in an exposed, windy location. The plants vary in hardiness. The flower buds, which develop late in the summer, may be killed by cold in the winter and thus eliminate the possibility of a berry crop the next summer.
The Burford holly, Ilex cornuta 'Burfordii', is a shrub type holly with attractive, shiny, dark green leaves and large, red berries. It has the advantage of producing fruit without pollination. This selection of Chinese holly grows to a height of six to eight feet. The plant is quite hardy, but the leaves may be damaged during the winter when planted in exposed locations.
Several species of Japanese holly, Ilex crenata, are very useful as landscape plants. All selections of this species have black berries and thus are less useful for indoor decorations than the red-berried types. All types of Japanese holly will tolerate heavy pruning to maintain a desired size and form of growth.
The roundleaf Japanese holly, Ilex crenata 'Rotundifolia', will attain a height of six to eight feet. It has attractive, glossy leaves and will grow well in partial shade.
The boxwood or boxleaf Japanese holly, Ilex crenata 'Convexa', grows to a height of about four feet. It has small, cupped leaves which give the plant an attractive, fine texture and make it especially attractive for clipped hedges.
The Heller Japanese holly, Ilex crenata 'Helleri', is a low growing selection of the Boxleaf holly that is hardy to Zone 6b. It is fine as a relatively dwarf species to locate in front of taller shrubs in the foundation planting.
Prepared by J. T. Foley, Extension Technician, Consumer Horticulture, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0327, from Virginia Cooperative Extension materials.