Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Trees, Shrubs, & Vines

Winter's Hollies

by Michael MacCaskey


Need an antidote for gray winter days? Feast your eyes on colorful holly berries.

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.

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