Holly Days

Posted by & filed under Shrubs, Trees.

American Holly (Ilex opaca 'Goldie')As we approach the winter solstice, I decided to visit some of my winter friends.  I am across the road from the children’s garden, safely hiding under the branches of a holly tree.  A good prickly tree like this should discourage the gardeners from looking for me here.

This is a good time of year to be with the hollies.  The Garden has a lot of hollies in its collection and this is the time of year to enjoy them and see how important they can be in a landscape.  Hollies can be found throughout the Garden, but two areas feature large plantings that really let you compare the different types to see what might be best for your garden.  The Holly Garden and Turner Sculpture Gallery features a lot of evergreen hollies in a more formal design.  It is a great display to see how these shrubs can do in a thoughtfully designed setting. I am hiding in the other large grouping of hollies, across from the children’s garden.   This planting features both deciduous and evergreen hollies and illustrates how big some of these trees and shrubs can get.  

The deciduous hollies have dropped most of their leaves and a wall of bright red berries grabs everyone’s attention.  Imaginative names such as Harvest Red, Winterberry (Ilex x 'Sparkleberry')Sparkleberry and Bonfire illustrate the fiery coloration these shrubs. Against a clear blue sky like today, they really are quite beautiful. The possumhaw hollies are also deciduous, but are more modest in their fruiting.  I see fewer berries on these, but perhaps it is because the birds like their berries better.  Further off the road are other evergreen hollies that feature splashes of red and yellow against dark green leaves.  The variation in berry colors and leaf shape, including spikiness or not, is quite impressive. 

There are other interesting trees in this area.  The sawtooth oak has finally lost its golden leaves but a graceful branching structure is now on display.  The state champion Chinese parasol tree lifts pale gray branches into the blue sky over the red-berried shrubs nearby.  Popcorn tree (Sapium sebiferum)The popcorn tree has started to “pop” as the white seeds start to emerge from their black shell while still hanging on the tree.  The little cluster looks like a piece of popcorn, without butter, waiting to be eaten.  This tree can be a weedy pest in areas further south such as Florida and South Carolina, but here the occasional cold snaps keep it from being too bothersome.

I hear the tram drive by this garden a couple of times a day and the guides seem to be telling holiday stories about hollies.  People have used hollies in winter festivals for ages.  There are comparable traditions in Germany, England and Wales about people using hollies to foretell who would rule the Chinese Burford Holly (Ilex cornuta 'Cajun Gold')household in the coming year.  At one time, people considered hollies with prickly leaves to be masculine (and called them he-hollies) while smooth-leaved hollies were feminine (she-hollies).  At the beginning of the year, if the he-holly came into the house first, the man would be in charge for the rest of that year. If the she-holly was the first through the door, the woman would be in charge.  It just makes me laugh thinking about people racing to get some holly into the house.  What is even funnier is there really are male and female plants (hollies are dioecious – a big fancy botanist word meaning that there are separate male and female plants), but the shape of the leaf has nothing to do about whether it is a boy or a girl.  For example, American holly has spiky leaves, but there are boy plants and girl plants.  The difference is in the flower and the female plants make berries while the males don’t.  That’s how you tell them apart.  Still, it’s a fun legend, isn’t it?

So come out and look at all the different kinds of hollies and decide what sort of he-holly or she-holly you should bring home.  I like them both, but it is under the spiky holly leaves where I like to hide.