Last month I planted 17 Savannah hollies (Ilex x attenuata ‘Savannah’) to form a hedge out front, so Mrs. G does not have to look at the back of the less that attractive Masonic Lodge along the road in front of the house. They should provide a sizeable evergreen screen with loads of berries for my bluebirds, robins, and cedar waxwings. Planting that many five-gallon hollies gave me plenty of time to reminisce about a lifetime love for hollies.

Hollies were among the very first plants that I learned to recognize and identify, including both cultivated and native forms. Naturally, any kid who followed Santa Claus was destined to have a “holly jolly” Christmas and see them on wrapping paper, holiday specials, and commercials. Three spiny green leaves and three red berries were also among the first images I could conjure and replicate as spontaneous art.

We also had American holly (Ilex opaca) native on our property in Longview where I was raised. My first-grade teacher, Miss Mozelle had a beautiful one that she said a man grafted to an improved berry producer years before. Mr. and Mrs. Adams up the hill had one so large that we kids could climb in the middle of it and never touch a spiny leaf. It was truly immense with a smooth gray trunk you could not reach your arms around.

Bluebird in possum haw

Bluebird in possum haw

The plant palette in our own landscape was very limited but I certainly remember dwarf yaupon and dwarf Burford hollies (Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii Nana’) across the front of our red brick ranch-style house and a regular Burford holly (Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii’) at the back corner of the house where my mom put coffee grounds around it.

As a young landscaper I also recall being paid to plant dwarf Japanese holly (Ilex crenata ‘Compacta’) in several landscapes to provide dark green color year-round. It is hard to imagine any landscape without at least some evergreens. As the English say, they give “bones” to the landscape design. Factoring in historic droughts, floods, freezes, and heat, along with benign neglect, no evergreens have been so dependable in my life than the Southern adapted hollies.

The genus Ilex contains over four hundred species native throughout the world. The most common landscape forms in the South include both Asian and American species. Hollies are further divided into evergreen and deciduous types. In recent years, the showy berried deciduous hollies have gained in popularity. The evergreen types of course, never waned. Holly selections range in ultimate height from small shrubs to medium trees and include both spiny leafed and spineless types.

Hollies have male and female flowers on separate plants (dioecious). The females produce the berries while the males produce the pollen transferred to form the berries. One thing I look forward to each winter is wandering in my woods marking the bird-feeding female yaupon hollies then later removing the less showy, berry-less males. Thankfully, most common landscape cultivars are female clones propagated from cuttings.

Evergreen hollies have numerous landscape uses. They can be used as attention grabbing specimens. They make great screens. They are excellent for framing views. They make the finest of hedges. Many are perfect for topiary work. And certainly, they come in handy for holiday greenery.

Some of the more commonly available evergreen hollies include:

American Holly (Ilex opaca): One of our most beloved native American evergreen trees. Can grow to fifty feet. A number of cultivars are widely available. Females have red or rarely yellow berries. This is one of the most popular hollies for Christmas greenery. Sadly, it is rarely available from retail nurseries but can be purchased from mail order sources and native plant sales.

American Holly

American Holly

Chinese Holly (Ilex cornuta): This Southern landscape stalwart is native to China and Korea. The strait species has very spiny (cornuta means “horned”) but attractive foliage. Less spiny selections are available. Selections range in size from dwarfs to large shrubs. Many have showy large red berries. Among the most common are: ‘Burfordii,’ ‘Burfordii Nana,’ ‘Rotunda,’ ‘Carissa,’ and the hybrid with English Holly, ‘Nellie R. Stevens.’  There are several selections with yellow berries and even several with yellow variegated foliage.

Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata): A native of Japan, this species was once a common landscape shrub in East Texas. The tightly fastigiate ‘Sky Pencil’ is sold but struggles in our blistering summers. Japanese holly has mostly been replaced with yaupon in the South, which is more adapted to our heat, drought, and floods.

Foster Holly (Ilex x attenuata): This group includes hybrids between Ilex opaca and Ilex cassine, the Dahoon holly. Some of them have large foliage like their American holly parent, and some have smaller foliage like their Dahoon parent. Most are small trees or large shrubs and have showy fruit and attractive foliage. ‘Foster,’ ‘Greenleaf,’ and ‘Savannah’ are the most common. ‘Eagleson’ is occasionally offered which was introduced by the old Eagleson Nursery (later Alston Nursery) in Port Arthur where I worked briefly back in 1985 (“Baby Greg”).

Savannah Hollies

Savannah Hollies

Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria): This outstanding species is native to the southeastern U.S. It is available in four different forms:  the standard large shrub/small tree, weeping small tree, fastigiate (upright) small tree, and dwarf shrub. Dwarf yaupon is the most common dwarf shrub in the South. This unique holly species has small, spineless leaves and takes shearing extremely well. There are both red berried and yellow berried forms available. Some of the more recent introductions include ‘Micron’ which is super dwarf, and ‘Skyline’ which is upright. Every cultivar is supremely adapted.

Cedar Waxwings and Yaupon

Cedar Waxwings and Yaupon

Look around you and give the hollies some love. They give much and ask for little.