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

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Editor's Letter - WORDS ANDY McIN­DOE Andy McIn­doe is a hor­ti­cul­tur­ist and au­thor with a spe­cial in­ter­est in trees and shrubs. He has been re­spon­si­ble for 25 gold medal­win­ning ex­hibits at RHS Chelsea Flower Shows.

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†.

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