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by Jerry Parsons, Ph.D.
Horticulture Specialist, Texas Agricultural Extension Service in San Antonio

Hollies remind us of the Christmas season. It is appropriate that we discuss these beautiful plants at this time of the year. The evergreen holly is considered, by many landscape designers, the most versatile of the landscape ornamentals. They aren't used enough in Texas even though they are amazingly tolerant of our temperature and soil extremes.

The association of holly and Christmas comes from the Druids of early British history. They believed the sun never deserted the holly tree and it was a sacred plant to them. It was their practice, therefore, to decorate the interior of their homes with holly in which the woodland spirits might survive the cold winters.

The name is thought to be derived from the word 'holy', for in several parts of Europe sprigs of holly were used in decorating to commemorate the birth of Christ. Legend has it that berries of holly were once yellow, but being part of the crown of crucifixion, were stained from the wounds of Christ, have since remained red.

Early Europeans believed that holly repelled all evil spirits and defended the house against lightning. Other superstitions existed including the belief that if prickly hollies were brought into the house, the husband was in command, but if smooth?leafed hollies decorated the home, the wife was in command. It was considered unlucky in parts of England to leave holly in the house after New years Eve. Others believed the holly had to be taken down before Shrove Tuesday and burned in the same fire on which the pancakes were to be baked, lest misfortune befall.

In more modern times, holly leaves and bark were used for various ailments. American Indians wore sprigs of holly during child birth to ease pain and assure delivery of a healthy baby. The dahoon holly was used by settlers in North Carolina to purify the swamp water. American Indians brewed a holly tea from our own native yaupon holly which allegedly restored lost appetites, kept them in good health and gave them courage in battle. But in this season of "Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men," the Christmas legends are more appropriate.

There are many types of hollies available for today's landscape. One of the unusual things about this grouping of plants is that they are named after countries. Classes of hollies are: American and Chinese.

Burford holly produces very glossy, dark green foliage. Generally, only one leaf spine is present, and this is at the tip of the leaf. This very popular and widely used landscape holly produces an excellent crop of berries each year. Burford grows quite large, often reaching 10 to 15 feet.

Dwarf Burford Holly has characteristics similar to Burford holly. The glossy dark green leaves are smaller, and growth rate is slower. The leaves, generally, have only one spine at the tip. Dwarf Burford will grow to a height of at least five to six feet if not pruned heavily.

'Rotunda' Chinese holly is one of the most satisfactory shrubs available. This variety is quite different from other Chinese hollies in that it has a dwarf habit of growth and a rounded shape. An important advantage is that little or no pruning is required to produce a compact plant. 'Rotunda' will tolerate hot, dry locations that would injure other shrubs. It is viciously thorny and sterile (no berries).

Yaupon holly is a Texas native, and is perhaps the most popular holly in our area. It is dense and bushy, and can easily grow into a small evergreen tree. Female plants produce small, shiny red berries??one of the best is named Pride of Houston. It can be used as a tall clipped hedge. There also exists a yellow-berried type named Saratoga Gold.

Dwarf Yaupon holly is one of the finest hollies available for low hedges. Unlike its parents, this selection is compact and slow?growing. You may want to ask for the Stokes or Shillings varieties. These produce small, fine?textured leaves and have a formal, rounded shape. They are very tough ornamentals that will tolerate hot, dry locations.

Some of the most outstanding holly varieties developed recently are crosses between many holly species. Nellie R. Stevens holly is an introduction believed to be a cross between English and Chinese holly. This fast?growing variety has excellent dark green foliage and large, red berries. It needs space to develop since it will grow into a small tree. This is perhaps the most appropriate holly for Christmas decoration in this region.

People are always commenting on the beautiful, berry?laden holly which is leafless in the fall and growing along roadways. This is the native holly (Ilex decidua) or Possum Haw Holly. There are male and female plants but vegetative propagation techniques have favored the berry?producing females.

If you wan a holly hedge, don't overlook Ilex cornuta or needlepoint holly. The variety Dazzler is a good berry producer but thorny so don't expect the neighborhood kids to come visiting after you plant it.

So as you can see, their is a holly ideally suited for every situation and location. This is the season to re-evaluate hollies for the landscape and realize that they are one of the, if not the, most adapted plants for this area. Those of us who remember the extreme cold of '83 and '89 will also remember that hollies survived and thrived through San Antonio's worse winters ?? the more commonly planted pittosporums were killed by the thousands.

Dazzler Holly
Ilex cornuta
Height: 5 to 7 feet
Color Large green spiny leaves
Season Red berries in winter
Habit Upright evergreen shrub
Care, Full sun to part shade
Comments Good landscape plant

Nelli Stevens Holly
Ilex 'Nelli R. Stevens'

Height 10 to 15 feet
Color Dark glossy leathery leaves
Season Showy red berries in winter
Habit Large, dense, conical shape evergreen shrub
Care Sun to partial shade
Comments Good screen plant, also suitable as small tree

Pride Of Houston Yaupon
Ilex vomitoria

Height 15 to 20 feet
Color Small dark green leaves
Season Scarlet berries in the fall
Habit Large evergreen shrub
Care Sun to partial shade
Comments Deer resistant

Foster's Holly
Ilex attenuata 'Fosteri'
Height 20 feet
Color Red berries
Season Berries sprout in winter
Habit Evergreen shrub
Care Sun to partial shade
Comments Deer resistant

Dwarf Chinese Holly
Ilex cornuta 'rotunda'
Height 2 to 3 feet
Color Light green leaves with stout spines
Habit Low compact evergreen shrub
Care Full sun to partial shade
Comments Usually does not produce berries

First Lady Yaupon Holly
Ilex vomitoria "baby jewel"
Height 5 feet
Color Dark green foliage
Season Red berries in fall
Habit Compact evergreen hedge
Care Full sun to part shade
Comments Low maintenance

Stoke's Dwarf Yaupon Holly
Ilex vomitoria 'Stoke's Dwarf'
Height 3 feet
Habit Evergreen bush
Care Sun to partial shade
Comments Deer resistant

Dwarf Chinese Holly
Ilex cornuta 'rotunda'
Height 2 to 3 feet
Color Light green leaves with stout spines
Habit Low compact evergreen shrub
Care Full sun to partial shade
Comments Usually does not produce berries

Dwarf Burford Holly
Ilex cornuta
Height 4 to 6 feet
Color Glossy green, leathery foliage
Season Red berries in the fall
Habit Evergreen compact grower
Care Full sun to partial shade
Comments Deer resistant

Deciduous Holly
Ilex decidua
Height 12 feet tall, 6 feet wide
Exposure: Full sun to part shade
Comments Truly outstanding small native tree, very low maintenance, which drops its leaves in fall to reveal showy red or orange berries (on female plants) that remain throughout the winter.
Attracts songbirds. Heat and drought tolerant.
See photos at:




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