High Holly Days

With their range of growth forms, leaves and berries, hollies put on a spectacular show this season.

Red sprite winterberry. 

The holidays soon will cascade over us, urging us into 2018, ready or not. It’s time to clear away the russet autumnal palette and seek a handsome, wintry promise for our yard, our front door, our sideboard, our table. This time of year, lights and glitz may add the jolly, but the call for tradition and nature are answered beautifully by the holly. 

In Richmond, at Maymont, the Gilded Age mansion and home of noted philanthropists Major and Mrs. James Henry Dooley, “Our largest and most magnificent hollies are the ones in the historic area right around the mansion,” says Peggy Singlemann, Maymont’s director of park operations and horticulture and host of WCVE/WHTJ’s Virginia Home Grown. These majestic specimens, with their prickle-armed, matte-green leaves and red berries, are the familiar American holly, Ilex opaca, put in by the Dooleys more than a century ago. 

Maymont’s 100 acres still hold up to the Dooleys’ design, and its arboretum, or tree collection, is known nationally. The collection includes a number of holly species, differentiated by traits like height and growth form; whether they are evergreen or drop in the fall; the color of their berries and the time of their ripening. It also features different cultivated varieties, or cultivars, of species developed to bring out unique sets of characteristics that make them “fantastic for homeowners,” says Singlemann.

Take the native winterberry, Ilex verticillata, a shrub or small tree that offers great winter interest. “Winterberries have beautiful red berries. They’re green in August, red in early fall,” Singlemann explains. “At Christmastime they make great decorations if the birds haven’t eaten them all.” But you might be hard-pressed to tell that a winterberry was a holly. Its leaves don’t look like what we mostly think of as holly leaves, but are oval and lack prickles. And they’re deciduous. So its winter look is a stunning array of brilliant red berries borne on gray twigs. 

Winterberries are easily grown, but caveat emptor—in hollies, the male and female reproductive structures are not only in different flowers, they’re on different trees, so you need a male tree and a female tree. Further complicating things, different cultivars don’t bloom at the same time, so make sure to select mates that do. Horticulturists have helped by giving the cultivars catchy names. 

Ilex decidua

 Two popular female cultivars are sparkleberry, “a gorgeous tall winterberry,” says Singlemann, and the more compact red sprite, which can bloom three weeks earlier than sparkleberry. “When picking the male plant, remember that Jim Dandy is a pollinator for red sprite, while Apollo is a pollinator for sparkleberry,” explains Singlemann. (Nursery operators can assist in picking appropriate companion plants.) By the way, one male can pollinate 5-10 female trees, so stock up on the girls.

Colors and blooming times vary between species too. Another native holly at Maymont is Ilex decidua, which also drops its leaves in winter. “The berries are a little more orange and come out later and linger more through the winter,” says Singlemann. The property’s holdings also include trees the Dooleys brought in from China and Japan, as well as the English holly, Ilex aquifolium, which is similar to American holly. If a florist delivers a holiday arrangement with a variegated, glossy-leaved holly, Singlemann says, it’s I. aquifolium, and usually one of two cultivars. Their names echo the Latin words for our favorite two metals. If its leaves are edged in white (silver), it’s Argentea marginata; if yellow (gold) at the edge, it’s Aurea marginata. 

Cultivars are available even of the venerable Ilex opaca, created to bring out different growth forms. “One is fairly new, called Maryland dwarf,” says Singlemann. “While an American holly is a tree that grows tall and with a triangular shape, Maryland dwarf is a ground-hugging shrub, slowly spreading to six feet across and two to three feet tall.” Satyr hill, another cultivar of I. opaca, has a columnar shape—the opposite of Maryland dwarf. Both cultivars have been named Holly of the Year by the American Holly Society, as has I. verticillata red sprite, boosting them in the trade as desirable hollies for home landscapes. 

Hollies have appeal year-round; in the spring as they feed pollinators; through the summer as attractive trees in the landscape; and this time of year as they stage a color spectacle before supplying winter birds with much-needed victuals. In winters in which the berries disappear quickly, we can be happy helping the feathered creatures. In the others, let’s enjoy them ourselves.

This article originally appeared in our December 2017 issue.

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