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Holly Trees For The Holidays

I always look to my garden when it comes time to decorate for a special party or celebrating the holidays.

I particularly like decorating with holly foliage because it has fruit or holly berries. Depending on the cultivar or variety, small round and red fruits are found all along the stems, giving us the perfect traditional color combination of red and green.

Top two hollies
Two hollies are both the most common large varieties for planting in the garden and for their use of the foliage in holiday decorations: Ilex opaca, American holly, and Ilex x attenuata #2, Foster holly.

American holly grows 30 to 40 feet tall in most urban garden situations, and can be quite wide with a full skirt of 20 to 25 feet or more in width. A full skirt is what we call the drape of the lower branches as they descend to the ground. The American hollies are at their most beautiful when allowed to remain fully branched to the ground or to have a full skirt. This skirt is not as obvious when the American holly is young, but as it matures it develops a beautiful flair or drape just before ground level. When American hollies are planted in areas that are too small for them to grow into their natural shape, they are often pruned in unusual ways or into tree form. Many would say that having to prune a beautiful American holly into an odd shape or tree form is a crime, and would rather see them taken out and something more appropriately sized replanted.

The hybrid Foster holly has both a smaller leaf and an overall smaller habit. Growing 20 to 25 feet tall and more conical, the Foster holly typically does not form a full skirt like American holly, and therefore is a much more appropriate selection when space is limited and pruning may be necessary. Foster holly can also be planted in a hedge row and pruned to form a formal hedge with great success. The fruit production on Foster holly is much more reliable in urban environments where male pollinators are sparse, and I find the foliage easier to handle and decorate with than American holly foliage.

Pollination a must
It is important to know that all hollies are dioecious. This means that male and female flower parts are found on separate flowers and on separate plants. The plants with female flowers produce the beautiful fruits or berries, and the plants with male flowers produce only pollen and no fruit. So if you want a holly that will have fruit, make sure you get a female cultivar and that there is a male cultivar in the area to pollinate the female holly.

Any holly can pollinate any other holly as long as the bloom sequence crosses. Can a shrub like Japanese holly pollinate a tree like American holly, or can an American holly pollinate a deciduous holly? Yes, as long as they are flowering at the same time and are generally located in the same area. In fact, this type of inter-species pollination occurs all the time. Several times I have seen a single American holly in full glorious fruit and not another American holly in sight, but there has to be a male holly of some variety nearby.

Water, water, water
Either holly will grow very well in full sun to part shade, and they prefer a moist acidic soil. When planting either of these hollies, watering them very well for a period of three months after planting is a must. Because they are typically branched to the ground, it is important to not rely on a sprinkler or Mother Nature only to water. Always water them by hand at least once a week to ensure that the soil ball that was in the container previously is receiving water and is moist until the roots can grow out into the existing soil.


by Angie McManus

When is the best time to cut back cherry laurels and holly bushes?

Both cherry laurels, Prunus laurocerasus, and holly, Ilex, are considered broad-leafed evergreens. They should only need to be pruned to shape them or to remove broken branches, usually due to severe weather. Pruning for this reason can be done at any time of year.

If you are pruning them because they are too large for the space they were planted in or because they are meant to be a more formal aspect of the garden, they should be pruned during the late winter or early spring before they break dormancy. To reduce the chance of spreading disease, it is always best to use clean, rust-free gardening tools.

If you need specific pruning instructions, go on the Web to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture at and type “Pruning Landscape Trees” in the search box to locate the online file or downloadable PDF.




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