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Some plants instill the holiday spirit in us more than others. Mistletoe, evergreens like spruce, pine, or fir, and the foliage of southern magnolia and holly all invite traditional feelings of the holidays. For many of us foliage is simply not enough: we want berries, lots of them, preferably red.

Fresh or fake?

If you have ever shopped for fresh-cut foliage and berries for decorating during the holidays, you know how expensive and hard to find they are. It makes me understand why so many use fake decorations.

To help you decide on a live plant selection, ask yourself three questions: 1) How good would this plant look with white lights on it? 2) What and how much can I cut off of it? and 3) Will it work in my garden and look good even if I do cut on it?

Holly, holly, holly

Holly remains the top pick for gardeners and holiday decorators alike. There are so many varieties to choose from. You can make your choice by first considering the space in your garden, then choosing the size and shape that would be appropriate. Next you need to choose between evergreen or deciduous foliage, and last but not least, pick the berry color you desire. Colors range from red, yellow, orange, to black, and many shades in between.

Deciduous holly, or winterberry, is certainly the most interesting and often the most underused of the hollies. For most of the year they can go unnoticed and really don’t look like what we classically think a holly should look like. The leaves are simple, doubly serrate, an average green, not very glossy, and do not have spines. Tiny white flowers emerge in the spring and you would hardly notice them if it weren’t for all the pollinators buzzing around. They do draw a crowd.

As October arrives, the days and nights start to cool off, and as the days get shorter you will notice the stems loaded with green and barely noticeable fruits, which start to turn red. As the leaves fall from the plant for winter you will see that you are left with the most incredible berry show you have ever experienced, which lasts until early spring.

Mature sizes of winterberry holly range anywhere from 4 to 15 feet tall, depending on variety, and with typically equal spread. The most commonly available plants are cultivars of Ilex verticillata, common winterberry, and Ilex decidua, possumhaw. There is also an Ilex verticilata, ‘Winter Red.’

Males and females required

One interesting fact about all hollies is that they are dioecious: on one plant there are only male or female flowers. The female flowers are the ones that produce the berries. You will need a male to pollinate your females. Male and female plants look essentially the same except for the flowers, and even then you need a trained eye. The easiest way to tell them apart is by purchasing a known variety.

The general rule of thumb is to plant your male in the back of a mass planting of females, or in the general area, making sure that both male and female plants receive the same light levels and are in the same general growing conditions. This is important to ensure that the male and female plants are blooming at the same time for adequate pollination.

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