Hollies for the Holidays

By Bruce Crawford  – State Program Leader in Home and Public Horticulture, NJAES, NJNLA

As you travel about New Jersey in late autumn there are a few plants that suddenly leap from the quiet shadows and into the spotlight. Interestingly, two such plants happen to include the American Holly (Ilex opaca) and the Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata), both native to NJ!  Unfortunately, many gardeners have yet to discover these bird friendly plants – an omission we certainly hope to correct!

Ilex is from the Latin for the Holm Oak (Quercus ilex), a native of the Mediterranean that has an evergreen leaf and coincidently shares more than the name Ilex since holm is Old English for Holly!  Ilex was officially coined as the genus name in 1753 by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). The American Holly, Ilex opaca is native to coastal areas from Massachusetts to Florida, west to Texas. This species was named in 1789 by the Scottish botanist William Aiton (1731-1793). The epithet opaca is from the Latin meaning shaded or dull, referring to the leaf surface although many selections have beautiful glossy foliage. In the wild, plants are found in wooded communities where the shade promotes a more open habit. They also grow perfectly well in full sun where the habit is much denser. Plants naturally develop a very attractive conical habit and look best with the branches left growing to the ground.  Most plants mature to 40′ tall by 20′ wide and grow best in well drained soils that remain moist with protection from winter winds.

‘Dan Fenton’ Holly

Aside from the evergreen foliage, the other major asset is the attractive red or golden fruit display.  However, not all hollies produce fruit since they are dioecious plants. In other words there are plants with only female flowers yielding fruit, and there are plants with only male flowers necessary for pollination. Thus, if you have a plant that does not produce fruit, you should check the small white flowers in May to determine if they have a prominent ring of the male stamens, or a well-developed central female stigma. If your plant is a female without fruit set, most likely there is not a male plant within a one mile radius or the distance a bee flies.

Ilex opaca has numerous cultivars on the market, many of which were introduced by Dr. Elwin Orton of Rutgers University. One of Elwin’s favorites is ‘Dan Fenton’. The plant has attractive dark green foliage, good fruit production, and a narrower habit making it ideal for most residential gardens.

Unlike American Holly, Ilex verticillata or Winterberry Holly is a deciduous shrub, growing 10′ tall by 15-18′ wide. It is native to moist sites from Ontario west to Wisconsin and south to Florida. Since it is more adaptable to various soil and wind conditions, it is easier to accommodate culturally than the American Holly. It will tolerate light shade, but like its cousin, grows best and densest in full sun. It was named by the famed American botanist Asa Gray (1810-1888) in 1856. The species epithet is from the Latin Verticillus, meaning whorled and refers to the spiraled leaf arrangement along the stem. Usually one male plant is adequate for 10-12 females and the smaller size compared to American Holly makes it easier to incorporate. Also, make certain to include an evergreen backdrop where possible as it enhances the bright red fruits throughout the winter.

There are numerous cultivars of Winterberry Holly currently in the trade. For the smaller garden, consider ‘Red Sprite’. It matures to around 5′ tall with an equal spread and has large red fruits over ¼” in diameter. Jim Dandy is the ideal male for pollinating ‘Red Sprite’.  If you prefer golden fruit, ‘Winter Gold’ is stunning (pictured below). It grows to 10’ tall and as wide and the slightly later blooming ‘Southern Gentleman’ is a great pollinator.

‘Winter Gold’

The fruits of both species are not only attractive, but are beloved by overwintering birds and should be open to view from a window, allowing you to enjoy the winter activity. An indispensable part of the garden for feeding both spring pollinators and overwintering birds, these two easily grown species of Holly will also provide visual delight.