Holiday Holly For Your Garden

Holly is a beautiful evergreen throughout the winter, and its berries (though slightly toxic to humans) are an important food source to birds. The pilgrims used holly to decorate for the holidays, and I’m willing to bet they were quite pleased to see a familiar plant from Europe growing here in North America as well. In fact, different species of holly grow throughout the world, and are found on every continent except for that of Antarctica. If you enjoy drinking Yerba Matte tea, guess what? It’s a holly plant from Brazil! George Washington was quite fond of American holly and wrote in his journal how pleased he was to receive seedlings of the plant from his friend, “Lighthorse Henry”.  They grew on his estate well into the late 19th century.    

While it is true that American holly is native to the East coast from New York to Florida, its cousin, the less hardy English holly is becoming more than just a problem plant in the temperate coastal areas of B.C. Canada, Washington, and Oregon. Planted in nurseries for holiday sales, it has escaped into neighboring forests and has become horribly invasive. It grows by seed spread by bird droppings, and quickly sends out branches that can root into the ground around it. The result is a prickly dense underbrush that shades out tree seedlings and kills native plants.

Ecologists note that if left unchecked, entire forests in the Pacific Northwest will be completely transformed in as little as thirty years. Young English holly can be removed easily when their roots are still shallow, but larger hollies are difficult to remove, and may need a tractor to pull them out or strong herbicides to eradicate them. Luckily, English holly is not hardy enough for our cold winter temperatures. Just warn any friends or family you may have on the coast not to plant it in their yard, lest they contribute to a ‘literally’ growing problem!  

Thankfully, there are varieties that you can grow in your landscape that are well behaved and not invasive. When planting a holly, place it somewhere protected from the wind, for example near houses or larger trees. Give it well-draining soil; it hates clay. The more sun you give it, the more berries it will make. Our soil tends to be alkaline, so address the problem by feeding it a handful of sulphur every fall. Organic fertilizer for hydrangeas and rhododendron is perfectly suited for holly’s nutrients and proper PH needs. Most importantly, hollies are dioecious, meaning there are female plants and male plants. A male plant is needed to produce the lovely red berries on the female plants.      

Here are a few non-invasive landscaping hollies I highly recommend:

Scallywag’s looks are deceiving since it lacks the typical holly shape leaf and instead has smaller round leaves. I love this guy for fall color. It’s a round shrub of only three to four feet tall and wide. The leaves turn into a beautiful burgundy red, and perch upright on black stems. Completely gorgeous!  

Castle Spire is a wonderful addition to your landscape. The females are 6-8 feet tall, and thin with beautiful red berries. Plant Castle Wall (the male) nearby to get berries, but keep in mind he likes to grow short and squat!

Gold King has slightly prickly leaves, and is an excellent thief deterrent planted as a hedge or under windows. The look of red berries and gold leaves together is exquisite, but this plant is more tender so plant it in a protected area.  

Happy Gardening and Happy Holidays! [email protected] 

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