For generations, Americans have decked the halls with boughs of holly because of its beloved shiny leaves and bright red berries. And, thanks to a holly breeding program started in the 1940s, homeowners today have a wide variety of hollies to grow in the landscape for holiday cuttings and year-round beauty.
“Look for yellow-fruited varieties, dwarf forms like ‘Maryland Dwarf', male selections such as ‘Uncle Sam' (a new American holly selection), and extremely cold-hardy ones like ‘Dan Fenton',” said Sue Hunter, president of the Holly Society of America (HSOA). Founded in Millville, N.J., in 1947, HSOA has now registered 375 cultivars internationally and continues to promote the genus Ilex through its passionate members at public and private gardens, university arboretums and nurseries.
Hollies have grown around the world for millennia, Hunter said, adding that in North America, the first fans were Native Americans who revered the way these understory evergreens stood out in the dormant woods.
The history is further depicted in a series of holly murals in HSOA’s hometown. After Pilgrims landed the week before Christmas 1620 on the coast of what is now Massachusetts, the evergreen, prickly leaves and red berries of American holly (Ilex opaca) reminded them of their homeland’s English holly (I. aquifolium) and its centuries-old Christmas symbolism. The English carol “The Holly and the Ivy” explains that link: “The holly bears a berry as red as any blood, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.”
Bill Kuhl, owner of longtime holly nursery McLean Nurseries of Parkville, Md., continues the historic account. English holly was eventually brought to the United States, Kuhl said, and although it did not grow well along the East Coast, it thrived in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, commercial holly growers shipped cut greenery via train to East Coast devotees for their holiday decorating traditions. When the United States entered World War II, growers could no longer ship by train. With an East Coast shortage, he said, opportunists started raiding Maryland and Delaware woods to harvest cuttings of native holly to sell at roadside markets. As the holly was decimated, female seedlings became dangerously scarce. (Because hollies are dioecious, they require separate male and female plants for pollination to occur to produce the signature red berries.)
Kuhl explained that, in response to the destruction, a group of holly fans, primarily nurserymen like McLean Nurseries founder Stuart McLean, started HSOA in 1947 to promote the production and mass marketing of hollies. The heightened interest in hollies spurred the discovery of many new species and hybridization of several cultivars. McLean introduced ‘Miss Helen', an American holly he found in Anne Arundel County, Md. Later, McLean found a seedling holly – what he eventually named ‘Satyr Hill' – across the street from his nursery. “(He) was reluctant to introduce it,” Kuhl said, “for fear it would be more popular than ‘Miss Helen', which he named after his wife.”
Another early breeder was the late Kathleen Meserve, an amateur horticulturist from Long Island. Her New York Times obituary in 1999 detailed how she grew cuttings on her windowsill and sought to find an English-style holly that could endure the harsh Northeastern winters. Her success came by crossing a low-growing Japanese holly (I. rugosa) with English holly. The results were blue hollies – hybrids with exceptionally dark blue-green, spine-tipped foliage and excellent hardiness. Meserve cultivars on the market today include Blue Girl, Blue Boy, Blue Prince, Blue Princess and Blue Angel. In the late 1970s, she introduced a cross – I. rugosa with the Chinese holly (I. cornuta) – that was heat-tolerant. The result produced China Boy and China Girl. In 1997, at age 91, she introduced Centennial Girl.
Over the years, American hollies fell out of vogue as these blue hollies grew in popularity. In 1990, Paul Hanslik, owner of Holly Ridge Nursery in Geneva, Ohio, reconsidered the marketing potential for American hollies’ deer resistance and drought-tolerance. He started collecting and propagating cuttings from various arboretums and now grows 40 American holly varieties.
Today, hollies remain a popular choice for home landscapes for their beauty, appeal to birds and the American hollies’ sustainable value as a native plant. Still, evergreen hollies can be challenging for northern climates. (And, it should also be noted that, though the berries can be eaten by birds, they should not be ingested by humans or their pets.)
According to Rich Larson, curator of the 200-holly collection at Dawes Arboretum in Newark, Ohio, evergreen hollies can dry out and brown in the Midwest where temperatures fluctuate. In winter, if the ground freezes, there’s little water uptake, plus winds draw moisture from the leaves. For success in zones 5 and 6, Larson suggests planting more cold-hardy Meserve or blue hollies in the spring in a protected location such as a courtyard or northern-eastern side of a home. At Dawes, for example, a border of pines provides an attractive backdrop and valuable windbreak for the tender broadleaf evergreens.
Farther north, Doris Taylor, Plant Clinic manager at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, said she sees lots of browning on the few evergreen hollies in their collection. If hollies brown during the winter, she advises holding off pruning the browned foliage in the early spring and waiting for the new leaves to emerge. She also recommends trying the deciduous winterberry hollies (I. verticillata) for greater success in northern gardens. Her favorites include ‘Winter Red', ‘Afterglow' and ‘Red Sprite.’
At this time of year, Taylor said, “the berries are numerous and glow with red and yellow colors on the bare stems.” Plus, she adds, they’re a good food source for backyard birds.
For the future, gardeners will have even more options as breeding continues. Mike Pontti, the registrar at HSOA’s International Ilex Cultivar Registration, has listed 79 new cultivars since he started the position in 1998.
“It’s kind of exciting in what is being done with hollies,” said Pontti of efforts, for instance, to create more cold-hardy cultivars, larger specimens for privacy screening, dwarf varieties for small gardens and containers, improved forms with more plentiful fruit and new red hollies for Southern states.
Teresa Woodard is a freelance reporter
Holly of the Year picks
To promote holly’s diversity, the Holly Society of America annually designates Holly-of-the-Year honorees. Here are a few.
Golden Girl holly (Ilex x meserveae ‘Mesgolg' Golden Girl); zones 5-9; yellow-fruited hybrid with glossy, dark olive-green leaves.
Longstalk holly (I. pedunculosa); zones 5-8; an underused holly resembling mountain laurel with its spineless leaves. Also, features bright red berries hanging on 2-inch stems.
Proud Mary holly (I. aquifolium ‘Proud Mary'); zones 6b-9; a variegated holly that’s fast growing and hardier than most English hollies.
Nellie Stevens holly (Ilex ‘Nellie R. Stevens’); zones 6-9; a magnificent holly that matures into a large tree growing 20 to 30 feet tall.
Red Sprite winterberry (I. verticillata ‘Red Sprite'); zones 4-8; an extremely hardy, deciduous holly from the U.S. National Arboretum. A profusion of bright red berries on bare winter stems.
Satyr Hill American holly (I. opaca ‘Satyr Hill'); zones 5-9; an American holly known for its large, dark olive-green leaves and long-lasting red berries.
For growing tips, a list of holly nurseries and a directory of holly collections to visit, check out the HSOA’s website. Remember, with all hollies, a male plant is needed to pollinate the female plants, or they won’t bear fruit.