Discover holly in its many variations, including this spineless Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’,
Slow-growing hollies are versatile shrubs that are perfect for a small garden and offer interest all year – not just at Christmas
Amature holly, shining in the winter sunshine is a wonderful sight. However, a fine specimen needs patience; hollies are long-lived shrubs that are going to take their time to reach maturity, regardless of your efforts as a gardener. Most are rangy juveniles with little appeal sitting on the bench in a garden centre. Given a good upbringing they grow into elegant, slim young trees, becoming broader and more important with age. Sadly, their determination to do things in their own time has led to their exclusion from some gardens. In our haste to see quick results hollies are often dismissed as too slow. However, for those prepared to plant for the future, these are some of the most rewarding evergreens in cultivation.
My early experiences of holly did not endear me to the plant. I could never see the appeal of draping the plates and pictures on the wall with sprays of evergreen with a few berries, and I remember the agony of making holly wreaths, when I worked for a florist as a boy. Others seemed more hardened to the spines and stub wires than me with my soft, schoolboy fingers.
When I started selling plants I soon experienced the fun botanists have had with the nomenclature. If it is a female, and therefore produces the desired red berries on cue for Christmas, it probably has a male name. The first I learned was probably the one that virtually everyone knows: I. x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’, with its broad, gold-variegated leaves and clusters of large, red-brown berries. Feminine sounding cultivars are usually male. There are exceptions. I. aquifolium ‘Silver Milkmaid’ is female (‘Silver Milkboy’ is also female, just to add to the confusion).
Hollies are mostly dioecious, in other words male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. Males outnumber females by as much as 18 to one. So, if you want a common holly with berries,
planting a young specimen of the species is a lottery. Luckily, there are hermaphrodite, self-fertile cultivars that set a good crop of fruit without the need for a pollinator. The best known is I. aquifolium ‘JC van Tol’, a holly I came across early in my career and one I always confidently recommend.
In recent years, with the interest in encouraging wildlife and use of native plants holly has enjoyed some renewed interest. Although the flowers of common holly, I. aquifolium, are insignificant they are a valuable source of nectar and pollen for bees and insects. The winter berries are soon devoured by wild birds as soon as they ripen, usually just before it is time to gather it for indoor decoration. The presence of holly in a mixed native hedge not only adds evergreen interest but provides a valuable protected roosting and nesting site for wild birds.
As gardens get smaller there is greater demand for plants that not only provide year-round interest, but can also be controlled in size. Some make attractive standards, suitable to add the presence of a small tree in a courtyard or garden, or as an alternative to a bay tree in a container. The white and green variegated I. aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’ is stunning grown in this way.
Although hollies are at their best in an open, sunny position on good soil they are remarkably tolerant and their shining, glossy leaves can light up a shady corner. They are tough and wind resistant and survive urban pollution and salt-laden sea air. They make wonderful foundation shrubs for the back of a border, where they can take on the starring role when perennials disappear and deciduous shrubs stand naked in winter. Try a golden-variegated holly behind a group of Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, underplanted with the large-leaved Hedera colchica ‘Sulphur Heart’. Or the compact I. aquifolium ‘Ferox Argentea’ with the white-and-green variegated Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’; a striking combination through summer and in winter when the dogwood’s dark-red stems are revealed.
Never overpowering, but with maturity and presence, hollies show their worth in many planting combinations.
• Andy’s recommendations for evergreen hollies continue over the next six pages.
Ilex aquifolium ‘Madame Briot’ A female holly with purple stems and gently waved, spiny, green leaves, mottled and edged with bright yellow. Scarlet fruits appear near the ends of the branches in winter. A popular variegated cultivar forming an elegant, conical, small tree when allowed to grow as a specimen. 6m. AGM*. RHS H6, USDA 6a-9b†.