Holly Trees and Shrubs

"Red Beauty" Holly

“Red Beauty” Holly

There are so many wonderful Holly (Ilex) trees and shrubs that grow well in our Pacific Northwest climate. You can choose evergreen or deciduous, large or small, narrow or wide, prickly or smooth, and you can even choose the berry color you prefer. They can grow in sun, part-shade, or even full shade (although there will be little berry production in full shade).

One of my favorite hollies that I have planted in my yard is Ilex Verticillata ‘Winter Red’. There are numerous cultivars of this deciduous holly, but “Winter Red” really produces a great display of dark red bright berries starting in the early fall while the leaves are still on the bush. Then the leaves turn a gorgeous yellow. Mine looks stunning in front of a Japanese Maple that turns a brilliant red. After the leaves fall off, the bright red berries remain on the stems. These are perfect for cutting and bringing indoors for Christmas displays. These shrubs are great for swampy areas as they are very forgiving about the soil they are planted in. They can also tolerate part shade. You need to plant a male to have your female produce berries. The males are small and nondescript so plant them where they are not a focal point. These shrubs will grow 4 meters high if you let them but are extremely easy to prune. This is a four season plant because the little white spring flowers are also pleasing.

Some other common and easy-to-grow hollies are Ilex aquifolium (English Holly), Ilex x meserveae (Blue Boy and Blue Girl), and Ilex Crenata (Box Leaved Holly with black berries). There are so many cultivars that are different and exciting. There are also numerous variegated hollies if you like variegation. There are now dwarf and conical cultivars for small yards. I bought an Ilex ‘Red Beauty’ that you can see at the top of this post. It is a narrow conical holly that is not supposed to grow more than 3 meters high. I love the abundant red berries that start covering the bush in early October and I can prune as many twigs as I want for my Christmas mantel and table. The leaves are extremely dark green and shiny and the berries look stunning against this backdrop.

One holly that I searched for two years to find is the Ilex “J C Van Tol”. This is a vigorous beautiful holly that looks very similar to the English Holly but has leaves without the prickly spines. It is also one of the few self-pollinating female hollies, although a male holly in the area will help to produce even more berries. I finally gave up trying to locate it as no nursery in our area carried it. I have seen some old specimens in Vancouver and below are two photos taken mid-November in Vancouver’s West End of a spectacular old tree. You can see just how large it will eventually get….so perhaps it is best that I never planted one after all! The berries are gorgeous, however, and the dark shiny leaves will not hurt you as you prepare arrangements and decorations. There are some other smooth leaved hollies (often called camellia leaved hollies) that you may be lucky enough to find locally.

Holly "J C Van Tol"

Holly “JC Van Tol”

Holly Berries "J C Van Tol"

Holly Berries “J C Van Tol”

Remember that holly berries are poisonous for human consumption and could cause vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure, and dizziness. Make sure you keep young children and pets away from the berries, especially as they are so bright and attractive. There are some bird species that can ingest the berries but even they will wait until fall and winter frosts work on the berries to reduce their toxicity. Remember that holly trees are usually dioecious so you need to have a male and a female plant in relatively close proximity. There are exceptions to this but just ensure you have a male nearby if you want your female to have lots of berries.

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