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Henry Clay, Horticulturist

Hollies for the holidays

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Posted: December 29, 2007 2:08 p.m.
Updated: January 13, 2008 5:00 a.m.
    Attractive holly foliage and colorful berries lend themselves well to spicing-up wreaths, garlands, and other Christmas season arrangements. This isn’t anything new for this wonderful plant has been associated with yuletide decorations for hundreds of years.
    Granted, a good bit of this type of foliage in use today is artificial, but there are lots of different types of live hollies that southerners have access to that fit well into our decorating schemes. There is just something special about using live material that makes Christmas decor unique. In fact, in some sections of the country actual holly orchards exist solely for use in supplying the floral industry with cut foliage during December.
    There are a few of holly plants that can be purchased for planting and future supply of cut foliage or even a live Christmas tree. High on my list of good candidates for super attractive foliage is a holly called Mary Nell. This beauty has already reached ten feet tall in my landscape. This prized possession is supposedly a three-way cross of other outstanding hollies. Granted, it takes a few years of growth and shearing to develop a compact specimen but this extra work is certainly rewarding. A nursery friend of mine, Tom Dodd of Mobil, Alabama, first introduced me to this beauty that has now become popular in most of the southern states. Pyramidal shape, outstanding spiny foliage and attractive clusters of berries are a few of its attributes. In time, it makes a beautiful outdoor specimen suitable for annual use as an outdoor Christmas tree ready to be decorated. Locally, this sought after specimen holly is used in the Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant landscape located across from the Farmers and Merchants Bank in downtown Statesboro.
    Nellie R. Stevens has become another favorite holly in the south. This cross between Burfordii holly and English holly is a best seller in states up and down the east coast. Foliage is dark green, a trait of English holly, and grows relatively fast as does Burfordii holly. Oddly enough, it doesn’t have to be pollinated to set fruit but pollination does help. Often used as a shrub, it will develop into a tree 20-25 feet tall. Check the parking lot across from City Hall in Statesboro for some nice 6-7 foot specimens of Nellie R Stevens. Nearby in Triangle Park there is a larger specimen often decorated for Christmas.
    Wirt L. Winn, another hybrid holly, also receives an endorsement of suitable hollies for planting. As a live specimen and source of cut foliage, this beauty earns an accolade. It is a cross between English holly and Lusterleaf holly. Oddly enough, it does well in the South even though its English holly parent doesn’t thrive too well in our heat. A specimen of mine has grown well in a dry wooded site. The underlying clay soil obviously holds enough moisture to suit this hybrid’s taste. Incidentally, a plant of mine has reached 15-feet in fifteen years and is a good source of cut foliage with adequate berries.
    It would be a shame not to mention a few of the more recent holly introductions such as a group called the ‘Red Hollies.” These are recent hybrid introductions of the 1990’s.
    Most of these hybrids have spiny, dark green leaves and grow into pyramidal specimens.
    The dark green, shiny leaves are used most attractively in yuletide arrangements.
Noteworthy cultivars in this group include Festive, Robin, and Cardinal. All grow well in
our climate with minimal care.
    If you want to include holly plants in your landscape as a source of cut foliage, avoid heavy pruning! Culturally speaking, heavy shearing in the fall and late winter-early spring reduces berry-set for the following year. The explanation is simple. Removing the foliage eliminates the flowers that would have produced berries for the fall season.
Another tip that enhances the looks and keeping quality of live foliage is the use of the floral water picks and clear acrylic spray. After cutting, stems are inserted in water picks to supply moisture to prevent foliage and berries from drying-out. Spraying both the front and back of leaves and berries with acrylic spray prevents desiccation and adds an attractive sheen to both leaves and berries.
    Local nurseries stock one or more of these hollies. If not in stock they can order a nice specimen for you. What better Christmas present can be found for a plant enthusiast friend?
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