While many of us consider holly an essential part of traditional Christmas décor, it actually has a history that predates this by many centuries but regardless of the culture or religion, it was always considered a ‘good luck’ plant. The ancient Romans planted holly bushes around their homes to protect them from lightning and ward off the influence of witchcraft, and wreaths of holly were prominent during their winter solstice festival, Saturnalia. Celts also hung holly branches in their homes to deter evil spirits, while the Druids believed it to be a symbol of eternal life and taught that cutting one down brought the worst possible luck upon the offender. So, a little respect for this Christmas green seems in order and with that in mind, here are a few options for your decorating or planting needs this holiday season.
English Holly (Ilex aquifolium) While this is ‘the’ holly of Christmas tradition, it is also on the list of invasive plants in BC. The reason being that the birds are rather fond of eating the berries and depositing the seeds throughout our forests, where they germinate and quickly overtake the native flora; which is why you are not seeing female plants being offered at your local garden centre. That said, there are still many beautiful male cultivars including ‘Silver Queen’ (a misnomer), ‘Ferox Argentea’ or Hedgehog Holly (also comes in gold, ‘Ferox Aurea’) and ‘Golden Queen’ (another misleading name), all of which are AGM winners.
Ilex aquifolium 'Ferox Argentea', Ilex aquifolium 'Ferox Aurea', Ilex aquifolium 'Silver Queen', Ilex aquifolium 'Golden Queen'
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) This Eastern North American native is a deciduous form of holly, meaning that it drops its foliage, leaving us with bare branches encrusted with jewel-tone berries. While this is a popular cut green at Christmas, it is not often seen in local gardens which is a shame as it is zone 3 hardy, tolerates moist soils and is quite easy to grow. The species reaches heights of 8-10’ tall, although newer compact varieties such as ‘Red Sprite’ (3’) and ‘Little Goblin’ (3-4’) are available, as are yellow-berried cultivars such as ‘Berry Heavy Gold’ and ‘Golden Verboom’. Male pollinators are required for berry production on female plants.
Ilex verticillata‘Little Goblin’, Ilex verticillata 'Golden Verboom'
Blue Holly (Ilex x meserveae) This 1950’s cross of English Holly and Ilex rugosa produced a cold-hardy (zone 5), sterile (no seedlings) holly that is reasonably compact (averaging 8’ tall). The leaves have a purple to blue tinge (hence the name), particularly in winter and both male and female plants are necessary for berry production with the most common cultivars being ‘Blue Princess’ and ‘Blue Prince’.
Highclere Holly (Ilex x altaclarensis) A hybrid of Ilex aquifolium and I. perado which has the advantage of smooth leaf edges with few spines and all the gloss of English Holly. While rare in cultivation, male and female forms such as ‘Golden King’ (female) and ‘Wilsonii’ (female) can occasionally be found.
Ilex x aquipernyi – There really isn’t a common name for this cross of English Holly and Ilex pernyi which resulted in smaller-leaved hybrids. ‘San Jose’ used to be the standard cultivar, while the columnar ‘Dragon Lady’ is fairly new to the market – both require pollination for berries.
False Holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus) These evergreen shrubs have the look of holly with less prickles and no berries. They work well in containers but are not the best cut green, as the leaves drop quickly. Choose from ‘Goshiki’ (tricolor foliage), ‘Variegatus’ (cream margins) or ‘Aureomarginatus’ (gold variegated).
Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Variegatus', Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Aureomarginatus', Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki'
Decorating with Holly – Your imagination is the only limit when decorating with holly, as tabletop centrepieces, porch pots, wreaths and swags are all more eye-catching with a splash of winter berries. If you are planning to cheer yourself up with some early Christmas decoration this year, then consider using Wilt Pruf, as this sprayable pine oil emulsion (which is natural and completely biodegradable) will keep your cut greens from drying out prematurely.