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Loving holly in all its forms

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Watch York city workers set up a 5.000-pound tree on Continental Square in York. The yearly event requires a crane, a flatbed trailer and a lot of donations.
Paul Kuehnel

 

When autumn leaves have fallen and the weather begins to cool, I start thinking about holly.  At this time of year, the plants have set berries, often bright red to match their beautiful green, shiny foliage.  What a wonderful contrast to the browns that seem to dominate the landscape now.  Holly comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, from shrubs to tall trees.  There are evergreens and deciduous hollies.  There is even a variety in berry color – red, yellow, orange, and purplish black.  Holly flowers, although less showy than their fruits, are powerful pollinator attractants.  We can enjoy hollies outdoors all year round and bring sprigs inside for holiday decorations.

I love holly for all of these reasons; plus, it is easy to grow and relatively maintenance free. 

I know for fact that I’m not the only one who loves holly.  Native holly is tailor-made for birds, who love the dense, prickly foliage for shelter and nesting and its fruits for sustenance.  The berries are enjoyed by at least 49 bird species, according to George Adams in his book Gardening for the Birds.   Some of the birds are flickers, mockingbirds, gray catbirds, brown thrashers, bluebirds, cedar waxwings and the American robin.

Select native hollies for your personal landscape.

Native hollies and other plants are those that were in our area prior to European settlers arriving, as opposed to plants that were brought to our area after that time.  Native plants, including native holly, evolved here and are well-adapted to our climate.  They are easier to care for, favor native soils, need less fertilizers, and once established for a year, need little to no watering.  Most important, they preserve Pennsylvania’s biodiversity.  With development and loss of habitat, coupled with choices to plant mostly lawn and non-native plants, we are losing our natives, and that includes beneficial insects who cannot eat the non-native plants that have become common in our yards.  Fewer native insects means fewer species of birds and other native wildlife.  You can help by planting natives in your yard.

Let’s talk about four types of native holly.  One is a medium to tall tree, two are shrubs, and one is a small, multi-trunked tree.  Three have red berries and the fourth has purplish black.  They are each different and each beautiful.  The scientific (Latin) Genus name for holly always begins with Ilex.

More: Master Gardening: Where do insects go in the winter?

Ilex opaca (American Holly) is a pyramid-shaped evergreen tree with foliage from bottom to top.  It can grow to 50 feet, with the growth rate being slow to medium.  Its leaves are dark green.  In the spring, the inside, older leaves turn yellow-green and drop before being replaced with new growth.   Also in the spring it displays clusters of small white flowers that are highly attractive to pollinators, and it’s fun to watch them buzzing around the tree.  After pollination occurs, the flowers on the female trees soon turn into berries that persist into the winter.   Birds love the berries.  This is a fine landscaping tree and definitely native to our area.  It prefers well-drained acidic soil and tolerates full sun to part shade.  Plant at least one male and several females to ensure pollination and production of berries.

Ilex verticillata (Winterberry Holly) is a shrub, a beautiful shrub!!!!  Its key feature is large, red berries on the female shrub forming late in the season and lasting into winter.  After the leaves drop, the shrub has beautiful red berries against the gray brown of the branches, quite a sight to behold.  The berries will continue to light up your winter garden until the birds find them and eat them, often all in one day, and generally not until January or February.  This holly is deciduous, not evergreen, and can grow to 10 feet high and wide if not pruned.  (There are many dwarf varieties that are suitable for small gardens.)  It prefers moist to wet, acidic soils, and this makes it a good candidate for a rain garden.  However, Winterberry does not need wet soil to grow well in any landscape situation.  The plant does well in full sun to full shade, although more sun means more berries.  The male and female plants produce flowers at the correct time for pollination and only the females produce berries.  Plant at least one male plant for one or more females.  Male and female Winterberries fit into three categories according to bloom time – early, mid, and late.  It is best to plant a variety of them to ensure pollination.

There are selections of Ilex verticillata that are more compact and some that produce bigger and brighter fruits, including the yellow fruiting varieties, such as ‘Winter Gold.’

Ilex glabra (Inkberry Holly) is an evergreen holly that may not look much like holly, with its small elliptical green leaves, not dissimilar to a boxwood, and its small, purplish black berries.  It is a slow-growing shrub that can grow to eight feet high and wide, but with occasional heavy pruning, can be maintained in a compact mound.  Plant inkberry in full sun to part shade in moist soils.  It is well adapted to saturated soils, which makes it another good candidate for a rain garden or any wetter area of your yard.  Though the berries are not very showy, they stay into winter and are a favorite with many species of birds.  Like other hollies, male and female plants are required so the female can produce fruits.  

More: Master Gardening: Growing microgreens through the winter

Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon Holly).  OK, this holly may be better adapted to Maryland or Washington, DC than to Pennsylvania, but isn’t the name great?  Native American Indians used the berries to make a ceremonial emetic drink, hence the name.  Today, plant taxonomists have been requested to change this name as there are several tea companies in the southern United States who commercially grow this plant to use the leaves for commercial tea production.    If you have a sheltered area in your yard, it might do well, especially if you provide winter mulch or other protection.

In the south, it is an evergreen, multi-trunked tree, 10 to 15 feet tall, with glossy green leaves, and inconspicuous flowers in the spring followed by abundant red berries that persist through winter.  It likes full sun for the best fruiting, and can do well in both acidic and alkaline soils and dry to wet conditions.  Female plants need a male pollinator in the area in order to bear fruit. 

This is a wildlife-friendly plant, providing nesting sites and food for many bird species.

More: Master Gardening: Don’t miss out on beautiful fall foliage – plant now!

 

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Karen Mitchell is a York County Master Gardener.  Master Gardeners are volunteers for Penn State Cooperative Extension.  For more information, contact the Master Gardener office at 717-840-7408 or YorkMG@psu.edu.

Would you like to see varieties of native hollies?  Here is a list provided by the Holly Society of America of public gardens and arboretums to visit.  Sounds like a day trip in your future.

Longwood Gardens
Kennett Square, PA

The Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA

The Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College 
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania 

The Tyler Arboretum 
Media, PA

Cylburn Arboretum
4915 Greenspring Ave, Baltimore, MD 21209

The United States National Arboretum 

Washington, DC

Rutgers Gardens 
New Brunswick, NJ

 

 

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