Tis the Season to Plant Hollies, Evergreen Symbols of Winter Cheer

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

Long before the first Christmas, hollies were celebrated as symbols of life and rebirth in the depths of winter. Their crisp green leaves and bright red berries ornamented Roman temples and Druid feasts, providing a burst of color in the otherwise dreary European winters. When Christmas replaced the Saturnalia of ancient Rome, the red and green of the hollies became associated new traditions that continue to this day.

I have always loved the holly clan, there is something about the sturdiness of these plants, as well as their striking leaf forms, that caught my attention early on. I became a rabid gardener, in part, because of my interest in the native plants of East Texas, which is a holly epicenter, and it didn't take me long to start transplanting unusual varieties into my first Texas garden. In fact, I remain convinced that the 'thicket' part of the Texas Big Thicket's name comes from yaupon, a holly species that grows so densely there, that you often need a machete to navigate the woods.

The hollies are among the most versatile and useful plants available to Central Texas gardeners. While we may not have the abundant selection of deep East Texas, we have several excellent native and introduced varieties to choose from. I tend to think of hollies of being "structure" plants, the trees and shrubs that provide the "bones" of the garden. Their dependable forms and evergreen leaves make perfect backdrops for flowerbeds and seasonal plantings. That doesn't mean that all hollies are stodgy and boring, many are worthwhile centerpieces, perfectly capable of adding their own drama to the stage of your garden.

Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is the most commonly available of the native forms. (The rather descriptive scientific name comes from the fact that native Americans were reported to use a tea made from the plant as a purgative.) Adapted to either sun or shade, it tends to be a slow growing, multi-trunked tree that looks best when carefully pruned to accentuate its natural branching pattern. For those who prefer a more formal, trimmed look, take heart, yaupon was among the first North American species sheared to create topiaries in the gardens of colonial Virginia.

Yaupons can get quite large, sometimes growing to nearly thirty feet, though some more compact cultivars are available. The berries of most yaupons are a brilliant shiny red. Yellow-berried varieties do exist but are rarely seen in nurseries. The leaves are small and oval shaped, giving the plant a fine texture. Unfortunately, when you cut a branch off a yaupon, it quickly sheds its berries, so they don't make great Christmas ornaments for your mantelpiece.

Two of the most useful landscape plants available to us are cultivars or selections of yaupon holly. My favorite of these is "weeping yaupon" a plant with a cascading branching habit that makes it one of the most striking accent plants around. Weeping yaupons have a distinctive oriental flair, looking like they have been carefully trained by a bonsai master. "Will Fleming" yaupon is a relative newcomer and has a very pronounced column like form, perfect for those of us who long for a substitute for plants like the Italian cypress. Unfortunately, Will Fleming does not produce berries.

The various forms of Chinese Holly (Ilex cornuta) have been nursery staples throughout Texas for generations. Most of us know these hollies, with their lustrous, thick leaves that often come complete with thorny tips. Some of these are tried and true performers like Burford Holly, which makes a fine hedge. However, I prefer the aptly named "Needlepoint" which gets large (up to eight feet tall) but keeps a nice rounded form. "Dazzler" is a particularly well-armed shrub, well suited for those spaces where you want to create an imposing (and painful) barrier.
Hybridizers have had a field day with the holly family, coming up with all sorts of half-breeds that are well suited for our tough summers. My favorite of these is "Nellie R. Stevens." This plant has it all- dark green foliage with a classic holly shape, not too thorny, and big red berries in winter. I have planted six of them in my new garden and intend to trim them up as large pyramids. For those interested in using holly branches as holiday ornaments, Nellie R. Stevens would make an excellent choice.

I can go on and on about hollies, and I haven't even mentioned my favorite native, the deciduous possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua), but I can't close without addressing the sex question. This comes up all of the time with the hollies, everyone wants to know if you have to have both male and female plants in order to achieve the hoped for bounty of berries. The official answer is yes, with the exception of the Chinese hollies, it does take two to tango. However, since everyone wants berries, no one sells male holly plants. Is this a problem, well, based on my experience, no. In this, as in most other matters, it seems the sisters are doin' it for themselves.

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