Of all the evergreens we use to decorate our gardens and homes during the Christmas season, holly is still the most popular. Native to the British Isles and southern and central Europe, Ilex aquifolium, or English holly, is the traditional Christmas holly. While traveling in England last fall, I noticed large forests of oaks with holly growing underneath as a companion plant. The Latin name aquifolium means ‘needle-leafed’, but many new varieties are much friendlier.
The use of holly dates back to Roman times when it was an emblem of goodwill and was sent from one home to another during the Festival of Saturn, celebrated from the 17th to the 19th of December. The Christmas custom of decorating homes with holly probably dates back to this time.
The pagans in the British Isles were very superstitious, and holly played an important role in their lives. Holly and ivy were used in fertility rites during the Fire Festival, which took place around the time of Christmas. When Christian missionaries attempted to convert the pagans, it was often easier to accept pagan superstitions and incorporate them into the mainstream of Christian life. Instead of being a symbol of welcome, good luck and eternal life, holly thorns came to signify the Passion of Christ and the berries, drops of blood.
Other superstitions persisted. A holly tree, growing near one’s home, was believed to protect the family from thunder and lightning. Holly was also hung before mistletoe, otherwise bad luck would come down the chimney on Christmas Eve. After Christmas, holly must be taken down before Epiphany Eve (January 5th), but a sprig should be retained to protect the house against lightning. You could sure get into a lot of trouble by not knowing your holly lore!
Most older holly varieties were unisexual, meaning both male and female plants were needed for pollination. Newer varieties, developed over the years, have eliminated the need for two trees. This is good news for smaller landscapes that can accommodate only one tree. All variegated forms, however, need a pollinator. Self-fertile varieties make good pollinators. In the case of hardy blue hollies, both male and female plants can be planted together in the same hole and thus save space.
The best English varieties to plant are the self-fertile ‘San Gabriel’ (which produces seedless berries) and the hardier ‘San Jose Hybrid’. I have seen both of these varieties produce berries even as small plants, which is so different from the older types. One of the most popular holly varieties today, however, is the Dutch variety, ‘J.C. Van Tol’. Unlike its English counterpart, its leaves are much smoother – a real treat when you are making wreaths or door swags. This variety also produces berries even as a small plant and is absolutely loaded as it grows up to 30 feet.
One of the newer compact hollies is a hardy variety called I.a. ‘Red Beauty’. Growing only 7-10 feet tall in a conical form, it’s an ideal patio specimen or small garden holly. It is self fertile and hardy to zone 6.
The newer and more compact blue hollies, ‘Blue Boy’ and ‘Blue Girl’ are a cross between the aquifoliums and Ilex rugosas, which give them the hardiness rating of zone four. ‘Blue Prince’ and ‘Blue Princess’ varieties seem to be far more popular. Their compact habit and black-green leaves provide a lovely contrast to their large, bright red berries. In spite of their hardy nature, treat them like a traditional broad-leafed plant and keep them out of winter winds.
The variegated forms of English holly are in great demand each Christmas, but unfortunately, very few are grown in home gardens. The silver and green leafed variety, Argenteo-marginata is, by far, the most popular. ‘Golden King’ is one of the best golden variegated varieties, and like the Dutch variety, has almost spineless leaves. Both need pollinators.
One of the hottest berried plants for this time of year is a totally unique deciduous holly called Ilex verticillata. When the leaves fall off, a stunning display of vibrant red berries smother the branches. While in high demand by the floral industry for Christmas décor, they are also the number one choice of birds for winter food. You need both a male and a female for pollination, so make sure you purchase two plants or a pot with both male and female together.
It’s that time of year again when we start thinking about decorating our gardens for Christmas, and holly is certainly a universal favourite. If you want to grow at least one in your landscape, remember: they need very good drainage.