I’ll never forget the first time I saw a real holly bush. I was 14 years old, and my grandfather had taken me down from the wilds of cold Wisconsin to the considerably milder, and then to me, completely mystical land of central Illinois. There, basking in the late afternoon autumn sun, stood a shrub that seemed almost afire with bright red berries, as if a bit of the warm summer sun had somehow been captured in its glowing fruit. This being the early 1970s, and I a child more accustomed to the wunderkraft of petrochemical America than the marvels of Mother Nature, it took all the considerably persuasive talents my grandfather could muster to convince me that this effulgent creation was actually a living thing, and not some plastic Christmas wonder placed in the landscape as a practical joke. Staring at the glossy green leaves and brilliant red berries, I immediately fell in love with this marvelous plant, and determined then and there that if I could ever have a garden in a climate warm enough to grow them, hollies would play a prominent role. This fascination has remained with me right to the present – hollies are truly one of my favorite species, used in every garden I design. And while they are delightful in the general landscape year round, it’s now, when old Jack Frost with his rimy breath has leveled almost everything else of interest in the garden, that hollies truly come into their own.
Nor am I alone in this love of holly, for my admiration follows an age-old path. With a common name thought by some to be related to the word “holy”, holly has been the object of sacred belief almost from the dawn of recorded Western history. The Druids, the Celtic priesthood in Iron Age Britain, believed that the sun never abandoned the holly bush, revering it as a symbol of the eternal turn and return of the seasons. The Romans held that the plant was sacred to the god Saturn, whose festival, Saturnalia, fell in late December and was eventually subsumed into the Christian celebration of Christmas. During the feast, Romans sent boughs and wreathes of holly to friends as a token of goodwill – they considered the plant a powerful counter charm, (as did, interestingly enough, many Native American tribes) and branches of holly were commonly hung about the house and stables to protect the occupants from evil spirits around the time of the solstice. Thus our holiday holly customs were born.
The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder also noted that holly planted beside one’s home was equally potent to ward off malicious enchantments, as well as stray bolts of lightening. (If true, I should be safe: while my house doesn’t have lightening rods or spirit deflectors, I do have a lovely holly right at the back gate!) Holly also featured prominently in the divination lore of many cultures: in medieval England, for example, holly was the center of various spells used by maidens to predict what their future husband would be like. Walking sticks carved of holly were, until the last century, quite in demand – not only was the wood fine and strong, but holly was thought to give protection against wild beasts and mad dogs, a belief dating back to at lease the sixth century BC when Pythagoras recorded it.
While holly walking sticks may no longer be le dernier cri, planting holly still is, and no good garden should be without some member of the holly clan. The holly family, (the genus ilex) is huge, with species native to every continent except Antarctica, offering literally thousands of varieties to choose from. One of the largest groups, and perhaps the most famous, is the English holly, ilex aquifolium. The name literally means “spiny leaved hollies” and is quite apt: the armed, curly foliage is notable for its extremely glossy dark green leaves; many different variegated patterns, both silver and gold, have also been bred. The large berries, which turn color in the late fall, can be either red or yellow. Native to Southern and Western Europe, these heavily branched dense plants eventually form a pyramidal-shaped small tree, some varieties reaching as high as 75 feet at maturity. The English holly’s main drawback is its limited range – zones 6b to 8a – kept too cold, and the plant winter-kills; too warm, and it rots. But where it thrives, it is spectacular. Used singly, English hollies make excellent specimens in the landscape; massed, they create an almost impenetrable screen or hedge. English holly is also an excellent candidate for espalier and topiary.
Another favorite of mine is the American holly, ilex opaca, which is native to a large part of the Eastern United States, from Massachusetts south to Florida. While some feel that its foliage is not quite as lovely as the English holly (the broader leaves lack the curl and high gloss of the latter), American hollies are hardier (zones 6-10) and more versatile plants than their English cousins, tolerating a wide variety of light and soil conditions, including those of the seashore. Also known as White Holly for its heavy, white wood, this shrub was imported to England as early as 1744, interestingly, not as an ornamental, but as a timber source. The extremely dense, finely grained wood found great favor in cabinet making and inlays. Dyed black, American holly wood was often used in lieu of ebony for the black keys on the piano. In the landscape, American hollies make excellent specimens, massed plantings, windbreaks and privacy screens.
The inkberry, ilex glabra, is an oft-overlooked member of the ilex family with many landscape uses, especially in smaller gardens. Unlike its more famous English and American cousins, this native is adorned with smaller, rounded evergreen leaves without spines, and produces black berries in the fall. Besides being a favorite of birds, the black fruit has been used since Colonial times to produce an excellent, penetrating ink and dye, hence the name. Tolerant of considerable shade and drought, ilex glabra grows well in darker areas of the garden, especially the cultivar compacta, which grows only 5 feet high. It is also quite hardy, happily thriving from zones 5 to 10. Because of their compact nature and attractive foliage, inkberries make handsome evergreen foils, and I particularly like to use them in foundation plantings and in the back of perennial borders when a plant with a little substance is needed.
For those of you living in the colder areas of the country who have been reading this column with a growing sense of despair, knowing full well that none of these marvelous plants would ever survive in your garden, take heart: There is an entire family of deciduous hollies, the winterberries (ilex verticillata) some of whose members do quite well as far north as Zone 3. While winterberries lack the yearlong foliage of their evergreen relatives, they more than make up for it by their extreme cold hardiness and phenomenal berry production, which is all the more impressive because the berries ripen on bare branches. There has been considerable effort spent hybridizing this American native in recent years, and an astounding range of cultivars are now available with both red, orange and yellow berries. Ranging from 5 to 15 feet tall, winterberries are ideal for mass planting on the edges of woods, along banks or in other more natural areas of the garden. Seen from the distance in early winter, you’ll understand what the Druids were talking about: a mass planting of winterberries will look as if some celestial painter has splashed dazzling strokes of sunlight across your otherwise colorless garden. The heavily berried branches make excellent material for cut arrangements, and have become quite sought-after (and expensive) in the florist trade. Needless to say, the berries are quite popular with the birds as well (especially wild turkies, who routinely strip my bushes), and winterberries comprise an important food source for many avian species anywhere they are found.
So whether you are interested in improving the winter appearance of your landscape, enhancing your garden’s appeal for birds and other wildlife, or simply creating your own sumptuous holiday decorations, I highly suggest including hollies your garden. And the wide selection of species and cultivars commonly available means that you’re almost sure to find a variety suited to conditions in your area. Who knows, in the process you may even frighten away an evil spirit or two, which in this uncertain day and age, can’t help but be a good thing.