Sunday, November 27, 2011

Christmas holly, our American version

I've always loved hollies, but after learning so much more about them in my Broadleaved Evergreens class at the New York Botanical Garden recently, I've come to really appreciate all the differences within  the genus Ilex in what seems like endless species, varieties and cultivars.  It's pretty mind blowing, which is what I thought would happen to my poor head while I tried to memorize all the ones we had to know for our tests, with correct spelling of all that Latin to boot...but I kept reminding myself that our list was relatively small as compared to the whole as self pity repeatedly washed over me!

There are hollies that look like the traditional Christmas holly, some with shiny berries and leaves and some with duller berries and leaves, hollies that look like boxwoods, hollies that grow tall and skinny, hollies that grow wide and shrubby, hollies that grow as large trees, and hollies that are native. My favorite by far is the Ilex opaca, the American holly.

Photo of Ilex opaca from Wikimedia Commons

This photo shows the Ilex opaca's deep green leaves with its shallow cuts.  The English holly, Ilex aquifolium, has much shinier, lustrous leaves with deeper cuts and is the one that is probably most recognized as the preferred decoration for our mantles and railings in our homes.  But I love the not so showy leaves of the Ilex opaca.  The berries, which here are still green, do turn red, but a duller red than the Ilex aquifolium.  For some reason, the less shiny nature of the American holly appeals to me.  And the fact that it's native is a big plus for our gardens and landscapes.  It will attract many more beneficial insects for our gardens and we'll get the bonus of much more pollination for our flowers, fruits and veggies.

In homage to the glorious American holly, I've been doing some reading and researching its history and uses in our homes.  Here is some of what I've learned.

The American holly naturally grows in the deep woods, is a mid-story tree, and is the state tree of Delaware.  These holly trees were noticed by the Pilgrims who landed in our country the week before Christmas in 1620 on the coast of Massachusetts.  When they saw it, the American holly reminded them of their native English holly, Ilex aquifolium, which was a symbol of Christmas in England and much of Europe.   

Ilex opaca is the only native North American holly that reaches tree size and proportion.  It's slow growing, but some cultivars will attain 6" of growth a year.  American holly naturally grows to a small to medium tree of about 40-50' tall in optimum conditions of moist, organic, acidic, well-drained soil.  It is found in North American from Massachusetts down to Florida.  As with most broadleaved evergreens, it should be protected from winter sun and winds to prevent scorching of its leaves.

There are many good cultivars of Ilex opaca for our North American gardens.  Some for northern states are 'Croonenburg', 'Old Heavyberry', and 'Miss Helen', and for southern states 'Savannah' is a great choice.  

"Considered by many gardeners the finest tree-type evergreen holly.  Over the years, over 1000 cultivars have been named." - Michael Dirr, Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs.

Many poems and songs have featured the holly.  A Christmas poem in an almanac of 1695 begins:

'With holly and ivy so green and so gay, 
We deck up our houses as fresh as the day.'

And even King Henry VIII used holly to help describe his love for one of his many ladies in "Green Groweth the Holly" from Poetry of the English Renaissance 1509-1660.  The poem begins:

Green groweth the holly, so doth the ivy.
Though winter blasts blow never so high,
Green groweth the holly.

As the holly groweth green
   And never changeth hue,
So am I, and ever hath been,
   Unto my lady true.

After reading this poem, Ilex opaca, American holly, will forever have a much more romantic meaning for me.  It's reassuring to know that some things in life stay the same and can have so many uses and meanings for so many different gardens and people.  

So go out there and find some native American holly in the woods for your decorations this holiday season.  Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of my gardening friends!

Monday, November 14, 2011

My love-hate relationship with Pieris japonica

I really hate Pieris japonica, or Andromeda, its common name.  Or at least I thought I did.  It's one of those shrubs you see everywhere in Connecticut.  The landscapers and designers seem to love it, and you even seen it all over in the big box stores.  But its droopy flowers have never seemed that attractive to me, and I've just never been able to understand why so many homeowners succumb to its questionable charms.  That is until I took my 'Broadleaved Evergreens' class at the New York Botanical Garden.  I'm finishing this class up now, and my final is Wednesday -- which I should be studying for instead of writing this post!  But I can justify my laziness by telling myself I'm learning more about at least one plant we studied by writing about it now...hmmm....a pretty sorry defense I know.  Anyway...back to the Pieris japonica and why I'm starting to understand its abundance in local gardens.

First of all and probably most important, it's evergreen.  It also has pretty, glossy, dark green foliage, I have to admit.  But the reason most gardeners, designers and landscapers seem to love it is its unusual drooping flower clusters that emerge in April and persist on the plants all the way into winter and that also give a slight fragrance.  A lot of folks call them Lily-of-the-Valley-like, and I have to admit they do resemble that flower in a smaller form.  But the way the flowers stay on the plant for a long time does give it a bunch of points, and there are many, many cultivars of the straight species that are very interesting.  One of them is the 'Dorothy Wyckoff' that you see in these photos I took just a couple of weeks ago at the NYBG.  A lot of the cultivars are smaller than the straight species and not as leggy, as this 'Dorothy Wycoff' shows very well.  The straight species has white flowers, but many of the cultivars have pink flowers, like this 'Dorothy Wyckoff'.  They look pretty planted as a specimen in a border, but also really stand out planted as a grouping as they are here.

They do have some drawbacks.  If they are planted in too much sun, they are very attractive to lacebugs.  They do best in part-shade with protection from strong winds, just like so many of the broadleaved evergreens.  They can get leaf scorch if in too much sun, and also mites and leaf spots.  BUT, a really positive attribute is they are deer resistant!  A big plus here in Connecticut and most of the Northeast.

The native mountain andromeda, Pieris floribunda, has flower racemes that are erect and not droopy like the Pieris japonica.  These are especially pretty, too, since that droopy flower has always bothered me.  But the Pieris floribunda IS attractive to deer.  Go figure.

The Pieris species is in the Ericaceae family with the rhododendrons and the mountain laurels and also love acidic, organic, well-drained soil.

So after learning more about its fine qualities and seeing the very pretty 'Dorothy Wyckoff' planted in mass at the NYBG, I might just be a Pieris convert.  Those cute little cultivars are a really nice size for most gardens, and I love the pink hues a lot of them have in those cute droopy flowers.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Fall's last holdouts in my garden by the Sound

A few last holdouts in my garden by the Sound. First of all, there's the prolific Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light'...this grass truly lives up to its name. I just took this photo with the morning sun shining through the still green leaves and delicate feathery plumes. Then my favorite fall bloomer, Viburnum plicatum tomentosum 'Summer Snowflake'...still blooming! This amazing performer should be called 'Three-Season Snowflake!  It just keeps blooming long into the fall after frosts have come and even after our October snowstorm.  I can't say enough good things about this plant.And of course, my mint will probably be growing long after fall ends and winter has begun. Every time I see it somewhere new in the garden, it just seems to call out "mojito time"!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Chartreuse leaves and luscious red berries at the New York Botanical Garden this week

One more view from a fall walk with my class earlier this week at the New York Botanical Garden.

The Bronx Zoo yesterday

Don't you feel like you're in Vermont looking at these photos? Nope, I took these from the monorail to "Asia" at the Bronx Zoo with my son Mark yesterday. The day was perfect - sunny, crisp and cool. The animals were out and mobile and the crowd was light. And I got to see some vintage Bronx fall son could not understand why I was taking pictures of leaves at the zoo...

Fall foliage, fall berries and snow at the New York Botanical Garden this week

Incredible Japanese maple foliage at the New York Botanical Garden this week. And a very pretty display by this Callicarpa. And one more view of our freaky snow's remnants in one of my favorite spots at  NYBG.

Our freaky October snowstorm left its mark at the New York Botanical Garden days later

Remnants of our October snow storm at the New York Botanical Garden this week.