Sunday, February 10, 2008

American holly

Are you tempted to dig out that holly seedling that sprung up in your garden and transplant it to a prominent location? Not a good idea. It's unlikely to turn into a good plant. If you want a holly, buy one. American holly varieties are selected to meet stringent criteria.(1) Many are culled, but few are chosen. Professor Elwin Orton of Rutgers, one of the best-known holly experts in the United States, laid out his criteria for selection in a lecture to a group of amateurs that I heard several years ago. In addition to the regular, Christmas-tree shape and dense foliage we all expect, Orton wanted lustrous, dark green leaves. In female plants he insisted on abundant, large berries that color bright red early in the season without a hint of orange. Quite a demanding set of criteria to meet. Rather than conforming to the Ortonic Idea of a holly, your dug-up seedlings are likely to turn into spindly plants with dull grey-green foliage and lackluster berries.

Who could complain about the berries on the American holly in the tree lawn in front of 201-203 East 9th Street near Third Place? They're beautifully red and phenomenally abundant. The plant is one of three American hollies used as street trees at that corner.

Berries from the East Ninth Street tree, pictured at the top of the page, make you think it's Christmas in February. People have been using holly as a seasonal decoration as far back as the time of the ancient Romans. Christianity borrowed the use of holly from the Romans, who used it in their December Saturnalia celebration.

Hollies aren't very commonly used as street trees in this area. Savannah is famous for its American hollies and Foster hollies (an American holly hybrid) planted along the streets, but I can't recall seeing them used in any numbers in New Jersey towns. Three more American hollies are used as street trees on Park Avenue near Seventh Street.

Two large and handsome American hollies are at 825 West Front Street. I would be curious to know what sort of equipment the owner uses to formally prune such large plants.

Another beautiful American holly is at 1122 Hillside Avenue. This tree's foliage is dense, even though it hasn't been sheared, because it gets plenty of light. Hollies in the wild are typically less dense than this. They're an understory species, and in low-light conditions hollies have fewer leaves.

Foster hollies (Ilex x attenuata), naturally occurring hybrids of American holly (Ilex opaca) and another holly species, can be found in nurseries in this area if you look; they're certainly not common. They're not as cold-hardy as American hollies. The most common version seen here is Foster #2, which does fine in our climate. The only examples I know in Plainfield are in my own garden. Unfortunately, they're not visible from the street. If anyone knows of a Foster holly visible from the street, I would be glad to hear about it. (I'm also on the lookout for photogenic examples of English holly, Nellie R. Stevens holly, San Jose holly or close relative, longstalk holly, blue holly, or any unusual holly.) Foster hollies are recognizable by their narrow, delicate leaves, pictured below.

(1) Holly fanciers have selected probably thousands of named American holly varieties (clones). Hollies, The Genus Ilex, by Fred C. Galle (Timber Press 1997) provides individual descriptions of hundreds of those varieties. I counted 27 descriptions of varieties with names beginning with "A" alone. A more easily usable guide to the hollies is Hollies, A Gardener's Guide, published by the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in 1993.

Copyright Gregory Palermo

1 comment:


Nice article and photos. 'Nellie Stevens' is probably my favorite holly overall, and Ilex vomitoria is my favorite native holly species. 'Foster's 2' is awesome too, much prettier than 'Savannah' and I believe less prone to chlorosis. I also recommend Ilex 'Liberty' for its beautiful, dark green, serrated leaves and stout habit. (I have all of the aforementioned in my yard except for 'Foster's 2,' which I'm getting soon.)