Choosing holly varieties to grow

Posted: Friday 16 December 2011
by James Alexander-Sinclair

If you want a really good berrying holly for your garden then here are my top three[...]

Holly leaves and berries

This time of year is not, I am sure you will agree, very planty. Our gardens are definitely out there but are not at their most welcoming. However, there are one or two plants which seem to sum up this time of year.

The obvious ones are The Holly and The Ivy: mostly because they are the commonest of our native evergreens, so they are available and useful for decoration in the deep midwinter. (The only other obvious native evergreen is the yew, which has too many graveyard connotations to be used comfortably as a decoration).

In the carol, the ivy gets pretty short shrift, as most of the verses are about how fabulous holly is. You will remember that, “Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown”. Holly also gets centre stage in “Deck the halls with boughs of holly, tra-la-la etc. etc.”. It is a marvellous plant, and is one of our best garden shrubs. Most obviously because of the startling scarlet berries (the flowers are small and pretty insignificant), but I think it is the sheer glossiness of the leaves that make it special. They look as if they have been polished with beeswax.

If you want a really good berrying holly for your garden then here are my top three:

Ilex aquifolium - this is the native holly. It will grow (quite slowly) into a good-sized tree, up to 25m high, although it responds well to pruning, so can be reduced to a shrub.

Ilex aquifolium 'Argentea Marginata' - I am not really very keen on variegation, but the silvery white edges to these leaves are quite subtle. It grows to about 15m high. There is also a weeping version, called Ilex aquifolium 'Argentea Marginata Pendula’.

Ilex aquifolium ‘J.C. van Tol’ - Suitable for those of a nervous disposition: a holly whose spikiness has been almost entirely removed. It will reach 6m in height.

And, as a bonus:

Ilex aquifolium ‘Ferox’ - this one does not produce berries, but has extraordinarily vicious leaves. Perfect as a burglar deterrent.

Other festive plants include (obviously) the Christmas tree - as in “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, Wie treu sind deine Blätter!” or (if your prefer the less evocative translation) “Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree, your branches green delight us!”. The only other planty carol I can remember is “Mistletoe and Wine” by Cliff Richard, but I will stop there as I hear the distinct sound of a barrel being scraped.

Have a wonderful Christmas and I look forward to seeing you all in 2012.

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oldchippy 19/12/2011 at 20:50

Hi James my neighbour had a lovely Holly half hanging over my fence,Each year I picked up two buckets full of dead leaves ,Ok for keeping the fox from jumping over the fence but not good for gardening,The skin prick took age's the heal,Now my compost area is in full sun most of the day(when it shine's)and I can fill my compost bin's and turn them over with out getting tangled up in the leave's.

happymarion 20/12/2011 at 16:05

May I add that Shakespeare did not forget the holly when he wrote the song "Blow, blow thy winter wind"?
Half way through is the refrain:
"Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.
Then heigh-ho! the holly!
This life is most jolly."
From "As you like it."

James Alexander-Sinclair 21/12/2011 at 08:39

Thank you HappyMarion.
Henry VIII (when not otherwise engaged) also turned his poetic mind to Holly:

Green groweth the holly, so doth the ivy.
Though winter blasts blow never so high,
Green groweth the holly.

As the holly groweth green
And never changeth hue,
So I am, and ever hath been,
Unto my lady true.

happymarion 21/12/2011 at 13:06

Oh, James,what a fibber he was!

kathryn.brock 22/12/2011 at 09:27

I have four hollies and only one, the variegated one has berries tis year.One other (grown in a pot) did have uptill this year but its lost most of its leaves and so has none this year. Mt other two came from one of my brothers grown in Derbyshire. It self sedds every year but has never had berries and mine don't have any either although one is with the variegated one.

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