Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
January, 2010
Regional Report

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A female cardinal eyes a new planting of 'Red Sprite' winterberry.

Make Winter Brighter

No doubt, some of you are snow bunnies, reveling in the white, fluffy stuff, while others are planted solidly in front of their special lights for Seasonal Affective Disorder or at least hunkered down with garden magazines and hot cocoa. As for me, hollies are among my arsenal of winter survival techniques, especially our native ones. Being able to look out my windows and see those bright red fruits on a monochrome day always lifts my spirits.

The most popular and widely grown native deciduous holly is the winterberry (Ilex verticillata), with some variations provided by cultivars. Second in popularity is the possum haw (Ilex decidua). For native evergreen hollies, the classic pyramidal shape of American holly (Ilex opaca) has made it the best known and most widely grown of the species that are hardy in our region. Inkberry (Ilex glabra) is another very adaptable native evergreen that I use throughout the garden, but it's chosen for its leaves rather than the black fruit.

Hardy to -40 degrees F, winterberry naturally grows in bogs and swampy woods from Canada to northern Florida and west to Louisiana. What is remarkable about winterberry, given this heritage, is that it readily adapts much drier, sunny sites, in fact, just about anywhere. The leaves are deep green, about 4 inches wide and 2 inches long, and turn a smoky burgundy in the fall. The abundant fruits, each one-quarter to one-half inch in diameter, begin to color in early fall, reaching full brilliance by mid-December, lasting much of the winter before being eaten by birds. The species forms a rounded shrub to 6 to 10 feet tall and as wide.

In growing winterberries (or any hollies for that matter), it's important to remember that they are what botanists call dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are on separate plants. In order to have berries, at least one male must be no more than 50 feet away from one to ten female plants.

'Winter Red' is one of the best and most widely used of the cultivars of winterberry. It slowly reaches a mature height and width of 8 to 10 feet. 'Southern Gentleman' is the best pollinator. 'Sparkleberry' is another large, heavily fruiting variety. It is a cross between winterberry and a Japanese holly, using 'Apollo' as the pollinator. For those needing a smaller profile, 'Red Sprite' is the best choice, reaching a mature height and width of about 4 feet. 'Jim Dandy' is the pollinator of choice. Prefer yellow fruit? Then try 'Winter Gold', a sport of 'Winter Red'.

What's not to love about a plant called possumhaw? Ilex decidua is native to moist areas from the mid-Atlantic west through Indiana to Kansas and south to Texas and the Gulf Coast. It grows variously as a suckering shrub or small tree, with plants maturing at 30 feet tall. Possumhaw is not as adaptable as winterberry, requiring moist, organic-rich soil in full sun to part shade to grow best.

Of the cultivars available, 'Warren's Red' is an abundantly fruiting selection favored in the South, but 'Sentry', 'Pocahontas', 'Council Fire', and 'Red Cascade' don't sucker as much and lose their leaves earlier, the better to display the fruit. 'Council Fire' and 'Pocahontas' grow to about 15 feet tall with a single trunk and rounded crown. 'Sentry' has more columnar growth, while 'Red Cascade' has larger-than-average fruit. There are also yellow-fruited forms, including 'Byers Golden' and 'Finch's Golden'.
'Red Escort' is a good pollinator, as is the male American holly.

American Holly
Although the American holly (Ilex opaca) is not quite as wonderful as the English holly (Ilex aquifolium), given the fact that English holly is not hardy in much of our region, then I'm quite happy we have the American holly, thank you. Hardy to -20 degrees F, American holly slowly grows in a pyramid shape to a height of 30 to 50 feet and 20 feet wide, bearing glossy, dark green, spiny leaves and bright red fruit. Choose a site with well-drained, organic-rich garden soil in full sun or partial shade. Be sure it stays well watered the first year after planting.

Over the years, hundreds of American holly cultivars have been named, but some of the favorites include 'Old Heavy Berry', 'Dan Fenton', 'Vera', 'Jersey Princess', 'Miss Helen', and 'Satyr Hill', the 2003 Holly Society of America Holly of the Year. Yellow-fruited selections include 'Canary', 'Oak Grove', 'Fire Chief', and 'Fallaw'. For small spaces, look for the slender 'Slim Jane' or 'Lady Blakeford'. Don't worry if you can't find any of these as you won't go wrong with any American holly. For pollination, 'Jersey Knight', 'David', and 'Baltimore Buzz' are good choices.

The Foster hybrid hollies started as chance seedlings from a natural hybrid probably consisting of American holly and one or two other native evergreen hollies. These have smaller leaves than the American holly and a somewhat more petite size, growing 15 to 25 feet tall and to 12 feet wide.

Any of these native hollies are a great addition to the garden, with all being easy to grow, providing year-round garden appeal as well as food and cover for wildlife, to say nothing of their bright winter inspiration.

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