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Festive Evergreen Holly Takes the Holiday Stage

Festive Evergreen Holly Takes the Holiday Stage

By Natalie Carmolli, Proven Winners® ColorChoice®

It seems whenever you see a show of festive Christmas décor, holly plays a pivotal role. Bright and cheerful, evergreen holly steals the spotlight as a quintessential holiday plant, with its cluster of glossy green leaves and vibrant red berries becoming an iconic representation of the traditional Christmas color palette.

Some Holly-Jolly History

Holly has a long history of brightening up holiday celebrations. In ancient Rome, citizens constructed holly crowns and wore them to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture, during their Saturnalia festival. The festival was celebrated December 17-23 and later extended to the end of our calendar year. In fact, Saturnalia is the source of many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas, such as wreaths, candles, feasting, and gift giving.

As Christianity emerged, holly's associations with the winter solstice persisted, adapting to Christmas. The leaves' sharp points symbolize the Crown of Thorns, and the red berries represent drops of blood shed by Jesus. No matter how you celebrate the season, holly is a beautiful and recognizable way to adorn indoor and outdoor spaces. Plus, they are easy to grow and maintain.

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Photograph courtesy of Proven Winners® ColorChoice®.

Choosing and Growing Holly

When most people think holly, their minds go to that classic holly branch that sports the glossy, spiny foliage and red berries. In fact, the prickliest leaves on holly plants are typically found closer to the ground. The added texture provides a natural defense mechanism where its foliage might be most likely to be eaten by wildlife.

Holly is a widely adaptable plant that thrives in full sun but can tolerate some shade. Most evergreen hollies prefer acidic soil, and in cold climates, it is a good idea to plant it where it can be sheltered from particularly windy sites.

Hollies are dioecious, requiring male and female plants for berry production. Female hollies need a male within 40 feet—plant one male for about every five female plants. Though poisonous to humans, birds enjoy holly berries, which provide a much-needed winter food source.

There are over twenty species of holly, but in this article, we’ll examine some of the most popular evergreen hollies associated with the Christmas season, starting with the classic English holly.

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‘Argentea Marginata’ English Holly, Creative Commons, Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

English holly (Ilex aquifolium) sports super glossy, thick, spiny leaves and bright red berries. There are dozens of varieties, some with dark green leaves and many with flashy variegated coloring. Ilex aquifolium 'Argentea Marginata' is a beautiful example of variegated English holly. It has handsome, shiny, dark green leaves with a creamy white margin. It typically grows 15-40’ tall and 10-20’ wide in a pyramidal shape and is hardy down to USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7.

American holly (Ilex opaca) is native to the eastern and south-central United States. The specific epithet opaca means dull, dark, or opaque in reference to the dullness of the leaf surface. The leaves of American holly also tend to have a yellow cast, as opposed to the dark green color of English holly. Because American holly is quite shade tolerant, you may find it growing as an understory tree. American holly bears red fruit and has a slightly less spiny leaf than English holly, but is also the most cold tolerant of the genus, typically hardy down to zone 5.

Blue holly (Ilex meserveae) derives its specific epithet from its breeder, Kathleen Meserve. Her love of holly was sparked by a lecture she attended at her garden club on Long Island (NY).

At that time, fresh Christmas décor would most commonly feature the less-hardy English holly, shipped as cuts from the Pacific Northwest. Meserve dearly wanted to grow this type of holly, but it was not hardy in her climate. So she took it upon herself to develop a showy English-style holly capable of enduring the harsh winters prevalent in the Northeast.

Meserve tinkered with several species at her home, cross-breeding several species of Ilex to find the perfect mix of beauty and hardiness, always using her favorite English holly as one of the parents. She finally found success with the cross of Ilex aquifolium and Ilex rugosa, a hardy, low-growing holly native to northern Japan. This breeding effort resulted in the creation of blue hollies, hybrids characterized by their remarkably dark blue-green foliage, adorned with spine-tipped leaves, and displaying exceptional resilience to challenging weather conditions.

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Photograph courtesy of Proven Winners® ColorChoice®.

Castle Spire® Ilex × meserveae is a beautiful example of blue holly. It grows 8-10' in a pyramidal shape with large, dark green leaves and bright red berries when sited near a pollinator plant like Castle Wall® blue holly (5-8'). Great foundation, specimen, or hedge plants, both are hardy in zones 5-7.

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Photograph courtesy of Proven Winners® ColorChoice®.

Castle Keep® blue holly has soft-to-the-touch deep green foliage on a semi-dwarf, 3-5' rounded habit, making it a versatile choice for smaller landscapes. Like Castle Spire®, it will develop red fruit if Castle Wall® holly is planted nearby.

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Photograph courtesy of Proven Winners® ColorChoice®.

Pruning Holly

Ideally performed in late winter when holly is dormant, pruning will help keep your holly well shaped and encourages optimal flower production. Evergreen holly can withstand hard pruning, making it an excellent candidate for topiary. Proper and regular pruning ensures a thriving and appealing ornamental plant, whether aiming for a specific shape or simply maintaining its natural form.

Exploring the intricate fabric of holly reveals more than just the charming aesthetics of this classic winter beauty - it uncovers a symbol intricately woven into our history. From its honored position in Roman celebrations to its Christian connotations, the legacy of holly is both varied and enduring.

Understanding how to grow this colorful gem, adaptable to landscapes worldwide, adds a practical touch to the enchanting story of holly. As we cultivate these emblematic plants, we connect with tradition and contribute to the vibrant tapestry of our own seasonal celebrations.

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