As gardeners we constantly struggle with life and death, health and illness with the plants we grow and love. Our plants grow on us like old friends or favorite stories, and we hope that they will always be there, no matter what the season.
Always elegant and stately in any garden, American holly, ilex opaca, growing in the right spot can be an impressive sight. There are over 400 known varieties of American holly but only about 63 are commonly grown. Hollies in general prefer moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soil and are tolerant of shade. American hollies are generally large yet slow growers, reaching 30-40 feet in height and 15 to 30 feet wide depending on the variety. You can find excellent collections of evergreen varieties of holly at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest near Bardstown and at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.
Some hardy hollies
Be careful when you buy: not all American holly varieties are hardy in our area, and I have often seen nonhardy Southern varieties available in the state. Some of my favorites for this area are Miss Helen, a fabulous red-fruited specimen, and Maryland dwarf, a shrub type growing about 4 feet tall and 15 feet wide. Both can be seen in the holly section at Bernheim Arboretum. The fruit is not always red. There are some great yellow- and orange-fruited American hollies. King Midas is an unusual variety where the fruit first turns yellow, then orange, and finally red.
American holly is only one of many great evergreen holly varieties available for the garden. Two common shrub types are Ilex glabra Compacta, Compact inkberry holly, and llex x China Girl, China Girl holly. Both have dark blue-green foliage and perform well in a variety of garden situations. The inkberry looks similar to boxwood but is a little more open in habit and has black fruit. China Girl has the traditional red fruit and spiny leaves, but they are not as sharp as American varieties.
Another holly that looks similar to boxwood is the Japanese holly, Ilex crenata. While there are many varieties on the market, only one has proved its hardiness over and over in Kentucky, Ilex crenata Glory, Glory Japanese holly. This holly makes an excellent dense formal hedge.
A large group of commonly available shrub hollies are the meserve or blue holly-Ilex x meserveae. They are very tolerant of shady locations and have beautiful blue-green foliage, but they are more susceptible to disease and do not fruit reliably.
If you have a smaller space but want a holly with upright traditional form, Foster holly, Ilex x attenuate Foster’s #2, is commonly available and has smaller, more narrow leaves. They grow relatively fast and can be easily shaped. They are known for their consistent heavy fruit set, and can sustain some foliar winter injury in a harsh Kentucky winter. Recovery is generally fairly quick.
How to pollinate
With all hollies, male and female flowers are borne on separate plants, so you must have a male nearby to pollinate the flowers of the females for fruit set. In general, any male holly will pollinate any female holly if they bloom at the same time. The problem is that each variety of holly usually blooms at different times, some early, some late, so for best results you should have a male of the same variety.
Many of us have our family history all mapped out, keeping track of everyone, what they did, where they lived. Rarely, though, do we find family garden history documented so carefully. With gardening being so much a part of our lives, it seems only natural that we should keep track of the plants we have tended over time. I have started to keep a journal of the plants I can remember as a child and those that I grow now. I hope that one day my children will see a plant as they travel, in a garden center or just in a friend’s yard, and it will bring back fond memories of the past and perhaps a story to share in any season.