Appreciating Hollies in Winter

'Dragon Lady' Holly

Hollies, the evergreen trees and shrubs that serve as backdrop or foundation planting and are seldom noticed in the spring and summer, are reeeeealy earning their real estate in January.   So let’s give ’em some love, shall we?

Hollies are a huge group that even includes a few that drop their leaves, but let’s focus on the evergreen ones – and there are so many to love.  A diverse bunch, they range in size from a 6-inch-tall spreading dwarf to a 70-foot-tall giant.  Their leaves can be small and spineless or large and almost lethal, and their berries come in red, orange, yellow, or black.   They’re what’s called dioecious, which means that the male plants produce pollen, the female plants produce berries, and the females need a male within 30 to 40 feet for good fruit production.  Long distance romances just won’t do.

This large group of plants isn’t just diverse – it’s also accommodating.  They grow in all 50 states, as far north as USDA Hardiness Zone 3 and as far south as Zone 11.  Most prefer full sun but many are fine in shade; they just produce less fruit there.  They all prefer slightly acidic soils, so Hollytone is the perfect fertilizer for them.  They’re relatively pest-free, though some do suffer from winter die-back.

Pruning required?  Not much, if any.   Only if you want to restrict the holly to a certain shape or size, or if you’re growing a hedge.  You can shape hollies by removing the tips of the current season’s growth during late summer, fall, or winter. To reduce the size of a holly, cut back the branches by half to three-quarters of their length in late winter. The result will be a plant that looks like a hat rack, with few leaves, but come spring, new leaves will spring forth from the pruning cuts; in two to three years, the plant will be fully covered in leaves.

When is the best time to prune hollies? Many people prune in early winter because they want to bring the cut stems with their holly berries into the house and enjoy them inside. Others prune later in winter because they prefer their display of holly berries outside.

Because they’re so easy to prune (what little pruning they may need) and because they grow relatively fast, hollies are fabulous for screening, especially when screening is needed quickly.  And the shorter ones are excellent as foundation plantings.

What else?  Hollies are generally avoided by deer and can be found on university websites about deer-resistant plants.  Yay.

Here are some of my (many) favorites.

‘Dragon Lady

‘Dragon Lady’ (shown above) is medium-sized, growing to just 10-20 feet at maturity – a great size if you don’t want to have to prune to keep it short.  It’s also just 4-6 feet wide, and is one of those rare symmetrical, very narrow pyramidal forms that works well in so many small gardens.  Also, it can handle partial shade just fine.  Its fruit are described in the trade as “showy” – so lots of ’em!  (Although as always, the more sun, the more berries.)  So it attracts and feeds birds.  Just avoid planting them in poorly drained soils.  ‘Dragon lady’ is – no surprise – a female, and prefers suitors like ‘Blue Stallion’ and ‘Blue Prince’ as pollinators.

‘Dragon Lady’ is used as screening, hedges or accents.

'Nellie R. Stevens' Hollies

‘Nelly R. Stevens’

A fast grower, ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly typically reaches a height of about 30′, spreads to about 15′ at its base and also has a nice pyramidal shape.   It has spiny, dark green leaves and round red berries.
It maintains its pyramidal shape without much pruning, making it another low-maintenance plant.  ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ is great for winter interest, both indoors and outdoors – just prune some branches and bring the clippings indoors as decorations.

‘Nellie’ is technically female but this is unusual – she doesn’t need a pollinator.  Nellie can set some fruit without a male being present, although the fruit will be seedless. Such technicalities aside, it is still better to provide a male: doing so will produce more fruit. The male counterpart to ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly is Ilex x ‘Edward J. Stevens.’

‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly is commonly used as a specimen tree or in a privacy screen.  In the photo above, a row of them along the sidewalk create privacy for the whole house from the street.

Joseph Panossian with 'Blue Princess'

‘Blue Princess’

‘Blue Princess’ has bright red berries – if there’s a suitable pollinator nearby; a popular one is the aptly named ‘Blue Prince’.  Like all “blue” hollies, ‘Blue Princess’ has leaves that are glossy, dark green, and moderately spiny.

‘Blue Princess’ can grow to as high as 12′  at maturity but with just minimal pruning, can easily be kept at a fraction of that height, so just prune to the desired shape and dimensions. Unless you’re using them in a formal hedge, they look best when the pruning is natural – not too obvious. To accomplish this, stagger the depth of your pruning cuts.   When used as founadtion plants they should similarly be pruned selectively to keep them at the desired height.

‘Blue Princess’ hollies are certainly attractive enough to also be used as specimensin the winter landscape, so you’ll want to plant them where you can enjoy them – near the walkway or front door, or seen through a prominent window.  They can also be used as hedges.

Dragon lady photo credit.  Other photos by Susan Harris.

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