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'Tis the Season to be Holly

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Sally Nex Sally Nex | 09:03 UK time, Saturday, 24 December 2011

‘The holly and the ivy
When they are both full-grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown’

 Ilex aquifolium ‘Handsworth New Silver’ AGM

What would Christmas be without holly? Its red berries bedeck our Christmas puds and liven up the wreaths which hang on our doors: and never mind the extra food they provide for birds. But hollies come in lots of colours other than green. In fact there are almost 280 different hollies to choose from altogether; and Jonathan Hutchinson looks after 160 of them, growing in the National Collection of Ilex at RHS Garden Rosemoor in Devon. Here’s his list of must-have hollies to grow in the garden. Happy Christmas!

Our native holly Ilex aquifolium AGM with its rich green prickly leaves and bright red berries has been brought into our homes over the darkest days, along with other evergreens, since ancient times, to give refuge to the wood spirits over that period.

Ilex aquifolium ‘Alaska’ is particularly good at smothering itself with vivid red berries. In leaf it looks like the species, but in form has an upright and narrow habit. Another cultivar that looks the same in leaf is Ilex aquifolium ‘Bacciflava’ but this has yellow fruits.

Of the variegated hollies a favourite of mine is Ilex aquifolium ‘Handsworth New Silver’AGM. The leaves of this cultivar have a crisp cream edge which are shown off well against the dark purple new stems.

This is a slow growing cultivar due to the smaller area of leaf available for photosynthesis through variegation, but it will grow large in time. Though it does produce good crops of red berries they are less visible due to the leaf colour, so should be viewed from close quarters to get the best effect.

Ilex x altaclerensis is a hybrid of Ilex aquifolium AGM and Ilex perado and has yielded a number of cultivars that are generally greater in stature and with larger leaves than the Ilex aquifolium cultivars.    

When planting hollies it is important to remember that they are generally male or female. Plant about three male plants to every seven females for a good crop of berries. Some cultivar names can be confusing: for example, Ilex aquifolium ‘Golden Queen’ AGM happens to be male and Ilex × altaclerensis 'Golden King' AGM is female.

Ilex aquifolium ‘Bacciflava’ Two good male cultivars are Ilex × altaclerensis 'Hodginsii' AGM which forms a tree or big shrub of dark green leaves, and Ilex aquifolium 'Myrtifolia Aurea Maculata' AGM which has smaller leaves than Ilex aquifolium AGM and equally splashed with patches of green and gold. It grows quite slowly producing dense growth to form a small shrub in time. 

Ilex aquifolium AGM has also been crossed with Ilex rugosa to produce a hybrid called Ilex x meserveae. This group of hybrids are also known as the Blue Hollies: the leaf colours and stems viewed from a distance give a wonderful dark purple-green effect. A cultivar that grows well at Rosemoor is Ilex x meserveae ‘Blue Princess’: thankfully this is female and proves it by smothering its upper stems in vivid red fruits.

For a really small spot in the garden, you can’t do better than a dwarf Ilex crenata. With the common name of box leaved holly, this gives a good idea as to what this prickle-free plant looks like. Ilex crenata ‘Dwarf Pagoda’ and Ilex crenata ‘Green Dragon’ are very slow growing and are even suitable for an alpine trough. Ilex crenata ‘Dwarf Pagoda’ is female and does occasionally produce black fruit, but it is for their compact growth and lovely form that they are really grown.

Beyond these are a whole host of species that bear no resemblance to what people commonly think hollies generally look like. The genus Ilex is very large with a wide species distribution through tropical America, North America, and the Far East. Possibly the biggest surprise of all is that there are a number of deciduous hollies and not a single prickle to share amongst them.

With this real wealth of species and cultivars there is lots of scope for a garden of any size, and plenty of choice and colour to deck our festive halls!


  • Comment number 1.

    Yes every garden should have a holly. This year, certainly in my area, the berries have lasted over Xmas, normally a flock redwings eat them in early December. Also the wood is of value to wood-turners, as unlike most other types, it doesn't split when drying. So the resulting bowl or cup, when turned 'green', warps into a wavy shape as the wood dries.

  • Comment number 2.

    I love that yellow berried one, pictured. Is that the I. 'Bacciflava'?

  • Comment number 3.

    Hereisabee - sometimes I think it's worth growing hollies just for the birds they attract. Lucky you to have redwings! And I've seen worked holly wood - it is a thing of beauty.

    Trillium - sorry about that, I'm not sure what happened to the caption there, but you're quite right, that's I. 'Bacciflava'.


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