Plant of the Month: Holly

By Shari Romar

Perhaps one of the most ubiquitous plants of the winter season, Holly can trace it’s cultural significance long before Dickens and the holiday carol “Deck the Halls.”

Records date as far back to Ancient Rome where the plant was associated with Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Druids praised its hardiness and considered it sacred while the Celts favored Holly as protection from evil spirits. Even in heraldry, Holly symbolizes truth.

No matter what belief, this is a plant whose beauty and grandeur is still appreciated today.

Hollies are grouped into the genus Ilex, with thousands of species around the world. These include smaller shrubs with less pronounced spiny foliage like the Inkberry (Ilex glabra) or the small-leafed Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata), to species that shed their leaves in autumn to reveal berries clinging to branches like Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and Possumhaw (Ilex decidua).

But at this time of year, our minds turn to those with evergreen, broadleaf and spiny foliage like English Holly (Ilex aquifolium) or our beautiful native species, American Holly (Ilex opaca).

In his book Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, de facto expert Michael Dirr writes that American Holly is considered by many gardeners to be the finest tree-type holly. Who can argue? With a dense, pyramidal shape, dark green foliage and bright red winter berries (more accurately called drupes), it’s a landscape knock-out.

Looks aside, American Holly is also a boon for our birds, attracting up to 12 species like Northern Mockingbirds and Cedar Waxwings, who gobble up fruit and take shelter in foliage during cold winter weeks.

While a slow-growing tree, American Holly eventually tops out at 50 feet, a size that may be unrealistic for many smaller landscapes. Rest assured dear gardener, there are other grand choices.

Thanks to their popularity, many plant breeders have developed smaller cultivars of several species. Or, arm yourself with clean, sharp pruners for a bit of yard work.

“Hollies take well to pruning in order to maintain size, and can form terrific hedges,” suggests Ron Keil of Keil Brothers Garden Center and Nursery in Bayside.

Hollies require both male and female plants for pollination to create fruit. Self-pollinating varieties are available but better yet, simply heed Mr. Keil’s charming advice.

“Just plant a male holly right next to a female, and they will live happily ever after!”

Shari Romar is the New Media Manager at Queens Botanical Garden. She is active at her community garden and maintains two websites BirdsBugsBuds.com and NYCNatureNews.com.

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