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A Holly for Every Need

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Enjoy the following recollection of holly berries and childhood from a Louisiana Horticulturist:

“Growing up right behind St. George, our neighbor, Mrs. B., had a Holly on the right corner of her house. Being a boy, what this meant for me was I now had “bullets” to throw at my younger brother. Holly berries were fantastic ammunition when we would play war with the other neighborhood kids as well! What I know now about hollies is that they make a fantastic food source for the birds rather than ammo for the kid in me, although I still throw them reminiscently at my employees from time to time. … Hollies are tough shrubs and trees that are easy to grow and are not prone to many diseases. Their shape and size are easily controlled with a little pruning. The berries will attract wildlife when there are few other food sources in the area for them. And yes…I will still use them for ammo.”

There are innumerable varieties of holly. The following breakdown from the Southern Living Gardening magazine gives a good breakdown of the varieties you are likely to find in the South (edited to reflect the varieties most suited to South Louisiana):

Holly (Ilex): 

Plant Details

Few plants are as dependable, versatile, and popular as hollies. More than 400 species and countless hybrids exist. Although a number of deciduous kinds have spectacular winter berries, Southerners generally prefer evergreen types that feature handsome foliage year-round and showy fruit as a bonus. In size, hollies range from foot-high mounds to trees 40-50 feet tall. Smaller, shrublike plants are useful as foundation plantings and low hedges. Large evergreen hollies make attractive tall screens and informal hedges, and they’re also good in corner plantings or as single specimens in a spacious lawn. Small-leafed types can be sheared into formal hedges or used for topiary.

Nearly all holly plants are either male or female, and as a rule both sexes must be present for female plants to set fruit. The selections described here are female unless otherwise noted. A few set fruit without a pollenizer; these are noted too.

Ilex X attenuata

  • Evergreen tree.
  • Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9.
  • Hybrid between Ilex opaca and Ilex cassine.
  • To 12-30 feet tall and about half as wide, with dense foliage and a conical or pyramidal habit.
  • Light green leaves are sparsely toothed, to 3 inches long.
  • Dark red berries.
  • Fast growing; a popular choice for screening.
  • Selections include these four:

East Palatka

  • Discovered near East Palatka, Florida, in 1927.
  • Abundant bright red berries.
  • More open and less hardy than ‘Foster #2’.
  • Young leaves have few spines; mature leaves are often spineless.

Foster #2

  • The most popular and ornamental of several hybrids known by the name Foster holly.
  • Narrow, conical form.
  • Small, narrow leaves with short spines.
  • Plentiful red berries.

Savannah

  • Very popular selection prized for fast growth and tremendous crops of bright red berries.
  • Narrow, upright growth to 35 feet tall and 8 feet wide.
  • Leaves have short spines and look more like traditional holly foliage than do leaves of other Ilex x attenuata selections.
  • Tolerates limy soil.

Dahoon

Ilex cassine

  • Large evergreen shrub or small tree.
  • Zones MS, LS, CS, TS; USDA 7-11.
  • Native to swamps and moist lowlands from North Carolina to Florida and Louisiana.
  • Dense, upright habit to 20-30 feet tall, 8-15 feet wide.
  • Leathery, medium green leaves, 2-4 inches long, toothed only at tips.
  • Heavy crops of small berries in red to reddish orange (sometimes nearly yellow).
  • Grows naturally in wet, acid soils; tolerates mild alkalinity and has some salt tolerance.
  • Regular to ample water.

Chinese Holly

Ilex cornuta

  • Evergreen shrub or small tree.
  • Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9.
  • From China and Korea.
  • Very tolerant of heat, drought, alkaline soil.
  • Dense or open form to 10 feet or more.
  • Leaves typically glossy, leathery, nearly rectangular, 1-1/2 to 4 inches long, with sharp pines at four corners and at tip.
  • Very large, bright red, long-lasting berries.
  • Selections rather than species usually grown; fruit set, leaf form, and spininess vary.
  • The following selections set fruit without pollination.
  • Deer resistant.

Burford Holly

Burfordii

  • To 20 feet tall and wide.
  • Leaves nearly spineless, cupped downward.
  • Sets a heavy crop of red fruit (much prized by mockingbirds and cedar waxwings) without a pollenizer.
  • Useful as espalier.
  • Discovered in Atlanta’s Westview Cemetery around 1900; hard to find in nurseries nowadays.

Carissa

  • Dwarf to 3-4 feet high and 4-6 feet wide at maturity.
  • Dense grower with small leaves; good for low hedge.
  • No berries.
  • Sometimes reverts to ‘Rotunda’, the plant from which it was developed.

Dwarf Burford

  • (‘Burfordii Nana’).
  • Like ‘Burfordii’ but is somewhat smaller, to about 8 feet tall and wide.
  • Densely covered with small (1-1/2 inches.), light green, nearly spineless leaves.
  • Dark red berries.

Needlepoint Holly

Needlepoint

  • Dense, upright, a little larger than ‘Dwarf Burford’.
  • Dark, narrow, green leaves with a single spine at tip; large crops of red berries.

Dwarf Chinese Holly

Rotunda

  • Compact grower to 3-4 feet tall and 6-8 feet wide at maturity.
  • Usually does not produce berries.
  • A few stout spines and rolled leaf margins between spines make the medium light green leaves nearly rectangular.

Japanese Holly

Ilex crenata

  • Evergreen shrub.
  • Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8.
  • From Russia, Japan, Korea.
  • The backbone of many a foundation planting because it’s an attractive plant that’s hard to kill.
  • Looks more like boxwood (Buxus) than holly.
  • Dense, erect, usually 3-4 feet high, sometimes to 10 feet Narrow, fine-toothed, dark green leaves, ½-3/4 inches long; black berries.
  • Extremely hardy and useful where winter cold limits choice of tender evergreens for hedges, edgings.
  • Selections include the following.

Compacta

  • Rounded shrub to 6 feet tall.
  • Dense habit.
  • Many different plants are sold under this name.

Sky Pencil

  • Narrow, columnar plant to 68 feet tall and 2 feet wide.
  • Striking in containers.

Soft Touch

  • Grows 2 feet tall, 3 feet wide.
  • Unlike other selections, it has soft, flexible branches.

Possumhaw

Ilex decidua

  • Deciduous tree.
  • Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9.
  • Native to the Southeast.
  • To 6-10 feet., possibly to 20 feet Pale gray stems; shiny dark green leaves to 3 inches long.
  • Orange to red berries last into winter or spring.
  • Warrens Red’, eventually 15-20 feet tall, bears a heavy crop of large red berries.

Meserve Holly

Ilex X meserveae

  • Evergreen shrub.
  • Zones US, MS; USDA 6-7.
  • Apparently the most cold hardy of hollies with the true holly look.
  • Most plants in this category are hybrids between Ilex aquifolium and Ilex rugosa, a cold-tolerant species from northern Japan; they are dense, bushy shrubs 6-7 feet tall and wide, with purple stems and spiny, glossy, blue-green leaves.
  • Blackish purple stems and spiny-edged, shiny, dark green leaves to 12 inches long; big orange-red berries last through spring.
  • Use ‘Ebony Male’ as pollenizer.

Ilex ‘Nellie R

  • Stevens’.
  • Evergreen shrub or small tree.
  • Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9.
  • Hybrid between Ilex aquifolium and Ilex cornuta.
  • The South’s most popular large holly.
  • Dense, fast-growing, conical plant to 1520 feet tall, 10 feet wide.
  • Leathery, glossy, dark green leaves are sparsely toothed and reach 3 inches long.
  • Sets fruit without a pollenizer but produces more berries if pollinated by a male selection of Ilex cornuta.
  • A favorite for foundation and corner plantings as well as for tall screens.
  • Probably the best all-around holly for the South.

Ilex ‘Oakland’

  • Evergreen shrub.
  • Zones US, MS, LS.
  • CS; USDA 6-9.
  • Hybrid of complex parentage.
  • Dense, pyramidal plant to 1520 feet high and 1215 feet wide.
  • Closely spaced, bright green leaves have the look of an elongated oak leaf with spines.
  • Red berries appear without the need for a pollenizer.
  • Makes a fine specimen or large hedge.
  • Good resistance to diseases and pests.

American Holly

Ilex opaca

  • Evergreen tree.
  • Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9.
  • Native to eastern U.S. Slowly grows to 40-50 feet tall, 20-40 feet wide; densely pyramidal when young, then becomes open, irregular, and picturesque with age.
  • Spiny green leaves reach 2-4 inches long, may be glossy or dull; show some bronzing in winter.
  • Red berries.
  • Site in a wind-protected spot.
  • Subject to many pests, with leaf miner being perhaps the most troublesome; to control, pick off and destroy all affected leaves in spring.
  • If this is impractical, spray with an insecticide registered for use on holly (check with your local Cooperative Extension Office).
  • Rarely both- ered by deer.

Winterberry

Ilex verticillata

  • Deciduous shrub.
  • Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9.
  • Native to swamps of eastern North America.
  • Unlike most hollies, this one thrives in boggy soils, but it will succeed in any moist, acid, organic soil.
  • Species and most selections grow 610 feet tall and wide, eventually forming clumps by suckering.
  • Dark green, oval leaves to 3 inches long may turn yellow in autumn.
  • Female plants bear enormous crops of bright red berries that ripen in early fall and last all winter (if the birds don’t eat them).
  • Plant one male plant for every six females.
  • Selections include the following.
  • Deer resistant.

Yaupon

Ilex vomitoria

  • Evergreen shrub or small tree.
  • Zones MS, LS, CS, TS; USDA 7-11.
  • Native to the South.
  • Grows in almost any soilacid or alkaline, wet or dry, rich or poor.
  • Good plant for the beach.
  • Tolerates salt spray.
  • Grows to 1520 feet tall, with narrow, inch- long, shallowly toothed, dark green leaves.
  • Can be grown as standard or sheared into columnar form; good topiary plant.
  • Tiny scarlet berries are borne in profusion.
  • Resists damage by deer.
  • Popular selections include the following.

Bordeaux

  • To 3-4 feet high and wide, with lustrous green leaves that turn wine-red in winter.

Dwarf Yaupon

Nana

  • Low shrub.
  • Compact grower to 1-1/2 feet high and twice as wide.
  • Refined, attractive.
  • Inconspicuous berries.

Pendula

  • Weeping branches look best when plant is trained as standard.

Stokes

  • (‘Stokes Dwarf’, ‘Schillings Dwarf’).
  • Male form.
  • Compact plant with tiny, dark green leaves closely set on branches.
  • Smaller than ‘Nana’.

Scarlet’s Peak’. Female Form. Narrow, Upright Grower To 20 Feet Tall And Just 3 Feet Wide. Dark Green Leaves And Plenty Of Red Berries.

Most hollies prefer rich, moist, slightly acid, well-drained soil, though there are some exceptions (these are noted). All appreciate a layer of mulch to discourage weeds and keep the soil cool and moist. Though hollies will grow in sun or light shade, you’ll get denser growth and heavier berry production in full sun. Diseases and insects are seldom serious; scale and leaf miner are the most common pests.

Evergreen hollies accept pruning quite well. Prune in winter to shape, control size, and harvest berry-laden branches for holiday arrangements. Also remove dead, broken, or crossing branches. Hollies that have grown too large or have become misshapen can be restored by severely shortening main branches; new growth will sprout from branch stubs and quickly fill inches.