I Love Ilex

The Genus ilex, commonly known as holly, is a very large genus comprising about 400 species of mostly woody shrubs and trees. For most people their vision of a holly, and my reason for selecting it for this time of year, is of course its appearance in Christmas decorations.

For gardeners, hollies  are a useful plant all year round but it is during the winter months that the plants really come into their own, with most hollies providing us with ornamental evergreen leaves and some producing attractive berries. Our native ‘common’ holly is Ilex aquifolium, with its many different forms and any large trees in our landscape being very popular targets for wreath makers at this time of year.

Cultivation – Hollies generally dislike wet, heavy, clay soil so it’s best to avoid this or add plenty of organic matter to improve the drainage prior to planting. Most types are pretty adaptable and will grow happily in sun or shade. They can be slow to establish but are generally trouble free – although young plants can provide a popular winter snack for rabbits and deer if you have not protected them. Evergreen hollies have been susceptible in recent years to soft scale insects, so inspect any plants prior to buying new stock.

Selection – Most hollies have yellowish-green flowers on separate male and female plants followed by berries on the female plants. If you want to be sure that plants produce berries, you will have to ensure that you match your female cultivars with a male, although a few self fertile cultivars do exist. Confusingly, some female cultivars have male names and female varieties have male names. The RHS Plan Finder lists over 20 altaclerensis cultivars and over 80 aquifolium cultivars for sale in the UK. Ask for assistance at your garden centre or nursery if you are in doubt, especially if you want a plant to produce berries.

Pruning – In one of my old gardening books I liked the term that Ilex submits to training into almost any shape. If you have an old overgrown holly, then prune it severely in the spring and it should recover. For general pruning, an old adage from my old head gardener that ‘evergreens are best pruned in the months beginning with A’ is a good one to follow, in other words April and August.

Some other Ilex worth considering are:-

Ilex x altaclarensis ‘Camelifolia’  A large fruiting plant with very attractive dark green spineless leaves. (Female) 

Ilex x altaclarensis ‘Golden king  (pictured)– One of the finest variegated hollies with gold and green leaves followed by reddish brown fruit. (Female)

Ilex aquifolium ‘J.C. Van Tol’ – An attractive cultivar with dark, shinning, almost spineless green leaves with the addition of self pollinating large red fruits. (self-pollinating)

Ilex aquifolium ‘Golden Queen’ – Attractive green and yellow variegated leaves. (Female)

Ilex aquifolium ‘Angustifolia’  – A slow growing cultivar with small leaves and a good choice for a small garden.

Ilex crenata  (pictured top left) – Known as the Japanese holly, it is a tiny leaved slow growing holly that has become popular in recent years as cloud pruned plants, although my personal choice for a small garden or raised bed would be Ilex crenata ‘Mariesii’ a slow growing upright plant with attractive tiny rounded leaves.

Ilex verticillata – This is a great plant to test your friends identification skills with as its deciduous leaves could catch some of them out. Originating from NE America, it likes warmer summers than we have in the Lothians, so select a sheltered spot. Although the plant in my garden flowers, it is without the male that it requires to produce the distinctive red berries on branches without leaves that make it so popular in the US and in this country as very useful addition to Christmas floral decorations. But if you want something different, it could be worth searching out its common name of sparkleberry, which also wets the appetite.

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