Yes, I know it’s some weeks after the fact, but today we’ll talk hollies.

This, in consideration of your possible experience during the late Christmas 2018 when you envied the abundant holly decorations of an acquaintance or friend, and you were left bereft of such.

You have determined you will have holly for Christmas by planting one (or, preferably, many) holly shrubs or trees in a few weeks for a merrier Christmas in years to come.

So, then, be sure you do some research before planting. There are hollies, and then there are hollies. I will do my small part today in helping you along that line.

Most hollies, including our native one, aptly called American holly, are either male or female. Only the latter bears berries, and she must be relatively close to her beau, say within a few dozen yards, to do so.

There is an ancient American holly, fortunately a female, behind New Hope Baptist Church at Clifty, from which my family has gathered fruitful branches for nearly 100 years.

It is huge and, as hollies grow slowly, must be more than a century old. Like most wild hollies, it is beset with a leaf-spot that disfigures the leaves to some extent, but not as badly as some others.

At any rate, American hollies are available in new varieties that are resistant to leaf spot and which have glossier foliage than most wildlings.

Their slow growth, however, is a problem — unless you are barely old enough to read.

Chinese hollies and their derivatives are best for both leaf and berry value. The widely sold ‘Burfordi’ holly is one of these and bears large berries most years. We have one at our driveway that is 40 years old and it is loaded this season.

The variety ‘Dwarf Burfordi’ is labeled to grow to some 6 feet tall. Ours, on the other side of the driveway, is taller than the standard ‘Burfordi’ at some 30 feet.

However, it is 40 years old, too, and is growing in a bit more sun and better soil. Both leaves and berries are smaller, however. Either of these make superb Christmas decoration.

The ‘Needlepoint’ holly is similar to ‘Burfordi,’ but with only one sharp spine at the end of each leaf. It grows in a generally more upright shape and can reach 20 feet.

It berries abundantly most years, with the ends of some branches so covered with berries that leaves are almost  hidden.

Of more recent vintage is ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly. This is probably the fastest growing holly available. It will be 10 feet tall in five years with good soil and conscientious watering and fertilizing.

The leaves are broad and shiny and berries are large and abundant most years.

Most of these, except of course the American holly, are of Chinese holly breeding. They are, as a rule, not as winter hardy as Americans.

In the 1980s when we had 17 degrees below zero here more than once, thousands of them were sent to the chipper truck. Of course, in those same years, crape myrtles and even young southern magnolias met the same fate.

Another class of hollies are those that are deciduous, that is, leaf-shedding and not evergreen.

Most are commonly called “winterberry holly” and are botanically Ilex verticillata or Ilex decidua, commonly called possumhaw. Possums will indeed eat the “haws” or berries.

Sans leaves during winter, these hollies create a spectacular show, especially when planted en masse. All of them require a male of their species pretty close by to bear berries.

‘Winter Red’ is the most popular of the Ilex verticillata females. With the proper male pollinator nearby, they will be borne to the ground sometimes with the weight of the berries.

Males must match exactly the timing of the female of the same species to get the job done. It is a good idea to plant several females along with one or more males.

Among males are ‘Rhett Butler,’ ‘Southern Gentleman,’ ‘Apollo’ and several others. To ensure getting the timing right, plant several different males with a group of females.

The possumhaw holly is common here in the wild, and can grow to 30 feet, usually in swampy places.

In our garden, they are not as fruitful as the winterberry hollies, but I have seen them in the wild that were burdened down with fruit, so I know it can be done.

Nurseries sometimes offer them in late winter when they are smothered with berries. They sell on the spot.

In most instances, a male possumhaw must be grown near a female to get berries, though there sometimes comes along a plant that proves to be bisexual. Growers should work them into the retail market.

Both winterberry holly and possumhaw holly have varieties with yellow or orange berries. ‘Winter Gold’ is one of the winterberries with orange berries.

The Jackson Ag Research and Education Center sometimes offers them at their summer and fall sales.


JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at  642-1162.

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