Using holly for winter decoration is a tradition that goes back at least 2,000 years to those ancient Britons called Druids. For them holly was a sacred plant in which woodland spirits took winter refuge. The Anglo-Saxon word "holly" is itself thought by some to be a corruption of "holy."
The more easy-going Romans celebrated their year-end Saturnalia in part by sending holly boughs with gifts to friends. And the Survey of London, published in 1598, notes that ". . . Every man's house, the parish churches, the corners to the streets, and the market places were decorated with holly at Christmas."
Thousands of different hollies are available, hence this article. It aims to direct you to the best hollies to grow for their winter show. To guide our selection process we worked with three holly experts: Gene K. Eisenbeiss of the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington D.C.; Fred C. Galle, former director of Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia; and Robert L. Ticknor, North Willamette Research and Extension in Aurora, Oregon (retired). This list includes nine species (six evergreen and three deciduous), five hybrid groups (four evergreen and one deciduous) and 75 named varieties. Each one offers a unique combination of adaptation, size, leaf color or berry habit.
How to Grow Hollies
Hollies prefer neutral to slightly acid, well-drained soils that are fairly light and loamy to sandy in texture. Amend clay soils with compost or composted organic matter. Most prefer full sun but tolerate partial shade. All hollies are tolerant of air pollution and road salts.
In northern areas, the best time to plant container-grown or balled-and-burlapped hollies is early spring, after soil is completely thawed but before new growth begins. Or, plant in fall once plants are dormant but before soil freezes. Make the planting hole at least twice as wide as the root ball and equally deep. Once you set the plant in place, the top of the root ball should be just above ground level.
In southern regions plant container-grown hollies anytime. Fall is best in the mild West; early spring in the humid Southeast. Holly roots are shallow so a light mulch to keep roots cool and moist is beneficial. Keep mulch six to 12 inches from the trunk to reduce mice and decay injuries.
Fertilize in spring to spur growth of fruit and foliage. Use one pound of 10-10-10 (or equivalent) fertilizer per inch of trunk for plants with trunks two to three inches in diameter. For smaller plants, apply one quarter the amount; for larger plants, triple it. Apply the fertilizer on top of the soil. Apply one third slightly inside the branch canopy; the remaining two thirds outside the dripline.
The best time to prune is in spring, just before new growth begins. Also, in December, as you cut boughs for indoors, make cuts with an eye to the plant's shape. (Cut branches last up to 14 days indoors.)
Most shrubby hollies grow naturally into an attractive shape. Taller, tree-like hollies, such as English and American hollies, are best trained into a pyramidal shape with a dominate central stem when they are young. Smaller-leaved hollies tolerate shearing. Best shape overall, and best berry production, comes with selective hand pruning.
Winter's Hollies Selection Guide
Most hollies are evergreen, and most are hardy to about 0°F (USDA zone 7). Deciduous hollies are hardier, generally to about -20°F (zone 5). Although temperature limits are a useful guide, other factors, such as summer temperatures and rainfall patterns, also influence adaptability. Therefore, all the evergreen varieties listed here are noted as either "N" northern, including the Plains and midwestern states east of the Rocky Mountains; "S" southern, including the Gulf Coast and upper South; or "W" western, including the Pacific Northwest and West Coast.
All hollies are dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are born on separate plants: The berry-producing flower is on the female plant and the pollen-bearing male flower is on another. Only females produce the colorful berries and to do so require pollen from a male plant of the same species. Hybrids are pollinated by males of either parent species. Those few female hollies that produce some berries without pollen from a male plant are noted in the descriptions. Birds feast on all holly berries but prefer red ones over other colors.
'Camelliifolia'. Leaves glossy, olive-green, 3-1/2 to five inches long, two inches wide with mostly spineless margins. Berries red.
'Wilsonii'. Leaves glossy green, to five inches long and 2-1/2 inches wide with numerous, evenly developed 1/4-inch-long spines. Berries medium size, red.
'Angustifolia'. Narrow, pyramidal growth. Leaves narrow, spiny. Berries small and bright red.
'Argenteo-marginata'. Grows to 25 feet. Leaf margins variegated silver. Berries red.
'Aureo-marginata'. Leaf margins are gold.
'Big Bull'. Male pollinizer for all English hollies.
'Ciliata Major'. Grows to 30 feet. Leaves glossy, dark green, spiny. Bark of young shoots purple. Berries red.
Gold Coast ('Monvila'). Dwarf male pollinizer that grows six to eight feet high. Leaves edged bright golden yellow.
'Little Bull'. Male pollinizer with small, glossy, shiny leaves. Grows to 15 feet.
'San Gabriel'. Grows to 25 feet. Leaves glossy, dark green. Sets some red berries without male pollen.
Sparkler ('Monler'). Robust and upright to 15 feet. Produces berries at young age.
'San Jose'. Eight feet high and four feet wide. Leaves deep green. Berries bright red. Popular in West.
'East Palatka'. Leaves large and spineless. Berries large.
'Foster's #2'. Leaves small and glossy green with spiny margin. Shape is compact and pyramidal. Berry crop abundant. Usually sold as Foster's Holly.
'Greenleaf'. Leaves thin with small spines. Berries red, abundant.
'Savannah'. Vigorous growth to 50 feet. Leaves large, uniformly spiny. Berries red. Hardy to 5°F.
'Anicet Delcambre' ('Needlepoint' and 'Willowleaf' are similar). Grows 15 feet high and wide. Leaves narrow, glossy, dark green, slightly twisted. Berries large, dark red.
'Berries Jubilee'. Grows slowly to four to six feet high and wide. Berries red, very large and produced from early age.
'Burfordii'. Grows 15 feet high, 10 feet wide. Leaves 1-1/4 inch long, and 3/4 inch wide, with one spine at tip. Berries large, bright red. 'Dwarf Burford' grows 10 feet high in 40 years. Other named dwarf forms, such as 'Rotunda' (very spiny leaves, to six feet high in 40 years), are available.
'Dazzler'. Grows upright, pyramidal shape to 10 feet, equally wide. Leaves very glossy green. Berries large, red.
Ilex hybrids China Boy and China Girl
'China Boy'('Mesdob'). Male pollinizer, or for landscape use. Grows eight to 10 feet high, six to eight feet wide. Tolerates shearing. Leaves deep green and lustrous.
China Girl ('Mesog'). Same as China Boy but with bright red berries.
Ilex hybrid 'Emily Bruner'
Ilex hybrid 'Nellie R. Stevens' N, S. Hardy to 5°F. Grows 18 to 20 feet tall, 10 feet wide. Pyramidal shape, gradually spreading over time. Leaves shiny green with two or three spines on each side. Berries red. Hybrid of I. cornuta and I. aquifolium. Berries showy, bright orange-red, very abundant.
Ilex hybrid 'September Gem'
Berry Magic. One plant each of 'Blue Boy' and 'Blue Girl' (see below) grown in the same container.
Blue Angel. Dense, compact, slow growth. Leaves dark glossy green. Stems purple. Berries deep red.
'Blue Boy'. Male. Grows six to eight feet high, three to six feet wide.
'Blue Girl'. Same as 'Blue Boy' but with profusion of red berries.
'Blue Prince'. Male.
'Blue Princess'. An improved 'Blue Girl' with more lustrous blue-green leaves and more abundant berries. A deep green Christmas holly.
Blue Stallion ('Mesan'). Male. Similar to 'Blue Prince' but with better branching.
Ebony Magic. Grows in dense pyramidal shape 12 to 15 feet high, six to eight feet wide. Prominent side branches colored deep blue-black. Leaves 2-1/2 to three inches long, 1-1/2 inches wide, dark green. Berries orange-red, 1/2-inch in diameter. Hardy to -10°F.
Golden Girl ('Mesglog'). Berries yellow.
'Cheerful', 'Merry Christmas' and 'Old Heavy Berry'. Leaves dark green, lustrous. Berries red.
'Canary'. Berries profuse, yellow.
'Mamie Eisenhower'. Berries brilliant red.
'Princeton Gold'. Berries yellow-gold.
'Stewart's Silver Crown'. New growth pinkish. Leaves variegated light creamy yellow.
'Folsom's Weeping'. Small tree, pendulous outer branches. Leaves glossy green. Berries red, abundant, nearly translucent. 'Grey's Weeping' is similar.
'Grey's Littleleaf'. Male. Upright and compact growth to 18 feet. Very small leaves 3/4-inch long, 1/2-inch wide. Berries red.
'Pride of Houston'. Branching habit erect, loose to 15 to 18 feet. Leaves nearly oval, lustrous, dark green. Berries red.
'Saratoga Gold'. Berries abundant, yellow.
'Wiggins Yellow'. Upright, spreading plant. Berries yellow.
'Will Fleming'. Extremely upright, to 12 feet high, one foot wide. Berries red.
These are used primarily in the Northeast, but are becoming more important in the Midwest. All have waxy berries in various shades of red, orange and yellow. Berries cover leafless branches until consumed by birds, late December in most cases.
'Pocahontas'. Bark light gray. Berries large, red.
'Red Cascade'. Bark light gray. Leaves wide, glossy green. Berries persistent.
'Sun Drops'. Outstanding yellow-berry variety.
Hybrids of Ilex serrata and I. verticillata
'Bonfire'. Grows to 10 feet. Berries scarlet red, abundant.
'Harvest Red'. Grows to 12 feet. Berries dark red, persist well.
'Sparkleberry'. Introduced by U.S. National Arboretum in 1973. Grows to 12 feet. Leaves yellow in fall. Berries large, very persistent (until March), extremely heavy setting. Plant with 'Apollo'.
'Bright Horizon'. Grows to six feet in 12 years. Berries red.
'Cacapon'. Grows to eight feet. Leaves dark green, crinkled. Berries dark red.
'Earlibright'. Grows to seven feet tall and four feet wide. Berries orange-red, early maturing.
'Jim Dandy'. Deep green leaves on a dense, twiggy, oval-rounded form. Male pollenizer.
'Red Sprite' (synonyms 'Nana' and 'Compacta'). Grows to five feet. Berries large, red.
'Shaver'. Berries notably large.
'Simpson'. Early-flowering male for pollination.
'Stop Light' (synonym 'Hopperton'). Berries large red.
'Sunset'. Grows six feet high, eight feet wide. Berries abundant, orange-red.
'Winter Gold'. Yellow-fruited selection of 'Winter Red' (below).
'Winter Red'. Old variety, the standard against which others are measured. Grows eight feet tall. Leaves lustrous dark green. Red berries abundant, persistent.
The most vexing insect pest is the holly leaf miner. Brief descriptions and controls (if applicable) for it and five other minor pests follow. Only nontoxic remedies are specified. If th grubs feed on roots. Control: Beneficial nematodes.
Holly berry midge. Minute, black fly lays eggs in the flower. Larvae tunnel into cell where seeds form, preventing berries from ripening. Primarily a pest of the American holly. Control: None.
Holly bud moth. Most common in the Pacific Northwest. Damage is caused by feeding and webbing of caterpillars in new growth. Control: Spray horticultural oil in late March.
Holly leaf miner. Larvae of a small, black fly tunnel inside leaves. Control: Spray systemic insecticide mid-May and early June.
Mites. These are tiny, spiderlike pests that live on undersides of leaves. Damaged leaves are off-color, often silvery. Southern red mite is common in the East, typically infesting I. opaca. Control: Spray insecticidal soaps or horticultural oils in early summer.
Scale. Brown soft scale is most common. Cottony camellia scale, lecanium scale and holly scale are occasionally problems. Control: Spray horticultural oil in late March.
For more information, contact the Holly Society of America, 309 Buck Street #803, Millville, NJ 08332-3819.
Michael MacCaskey is editorial director of National Gardening.
Photography by SuzanneDeJohn/National Gardening Association