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!


  1. Oh I wish I could go look for holly, but , alas, we live on the prairie. I will have to check in the spring to see what sort of holly grows in Colorado. Great information on Ilxe opaca.

  2. hi ann, I love Colorado! I'd love to hear about some of your unique native species that you love. Happy holidays (can't believe it's already time to say that!)