Holly for the Holidays

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.

Ilex x altaclarensis 'Golden King'

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’.

Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Princess'

Ilex x altaclarensis 'Wilsonii'

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 aquipernyiThere 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.

Ilex x aquipernyi 'Dragon Lady'

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'

Centrepiece with Holly and Winterberry

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.

Porch Pot with Holly and Winterberry
Standard Wreath with Winterberry Highlights and a felt Santa.

Making a Winterberry Wreath – While this might be considered the quintessential décor for any front door during the holidays, making a Winterberry wreath can be a bit costly if you have to purchase all the stems. Options would be to introduce some greenery such as Oregonia (Variegated Boxwood) to provide some contrast and lower your costs, or you could just plant some male and female Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) bushes and harvest your own stems, as they are not difficult to grow. In any case here are step-by-step instructions and remember to hang the wreath in the garden after Christmas, as the thrushes and waxwings will gladly pick it clean of berries.

Winterberry Wreath picked clean by the birds.

Tools & Supplies – You’ll need an 18 or 24” wire wreath frame, a roll of waxed string, some rustic wire, secateurs (hand pruners) and wire cutters. Depending on how dense you want your wreath to be, you’ll require between 30 to 45 Winterberry stems, with lengths varying from 10-12”. A flat work surface will be handy, as will a second pair of hands.

Winterberry wreath supplies

Step 1 – Begin by prepping your Winterberry stems by removing leaves and any spoiled berries beforehand. Secure your waxed string to the frame by tying it to a crosspiece and then you are ready to begin attaching your stems to the wreath support.

Winterberry Wreath Step 1 -remove leaves and damaged berries
Winterberry Wreath Step 1; attach waxed string to frame

Step 2 – Carefully tie your Winterberry stems to the frame in bundles of three (if adding greens, use two stems of Oregonia with one Winterberry stem on top), while also taking the time to gently bend the lower bare stems to the arch of the frame and tie in place. Once in position the tips of the Winterberry stems should still flare out somewhat, up to 3-4” from the frame edge. Be careful to choose thinner stems, as the thicker ones tend to crack.

Winterberry Wreath Step 2; attach in bundles of three

Winterberry Wreath Step 3; work your way around the frame

Step 3 – Continue the process by overlapping the Winterberry bundles and tying them to the frame in succession, carefully working your way full circle. Once you’ve tied all the Winterberry sprigs onto the frame you can use your secateurs to prune the tips in order to create a balanced wreath. Then you can attach a loop of rustic wire onto the back for hanging onto the door.

Completed Winterberry Wreath

All Images Copyright 2020 MK Lascelle

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