Grow hollies for their pretty berries

nbrachey@charlotteobserver.comDecember 7, 2012 


Luster Leaf Holly


  • Q&A Q.   When we moved into our new house three years ago, there were very small Kaleidoscope abelias planted in front of some larger shrubbery. Even though I have trimmed them back several times a year – and they are beautiful – the abelias have totally outgrown their space. They are over 5 feet wide and are growing into each other, into the other shrubs, and over the edge of the driveway. I’d like to just take the electric trimmer and cut them way back. How do you think they would survive that? Since these are well-established plants, they would survive, but if you do this now, they won’t look very good until new growth comes out next spring. I am not sure how far you mean is “way back,” but it would be best if you cut them back by no more than one-third in late winter (or now, in the case of intrusive branches). That should leave foliage to cover the plant and give it a better shape. Perhaps the shrubs in the back could also be trimmed to make more space. Or perhaps, the strategic removal of one of more of the abelias might give everyone more breathing room. nancy brachey

The time squeeze that most of us feel in December leaves few occasions for gardening. Fortunately, the home landscape makes few demands on us once the leaves are dealt with and the flower beds tidied. The more interesting task is seeking bits and pieces of the landscape that will go indoors to enhance the decor.

Holly berries and leaves are classic motifs of the season. Holly is one plant every gardener should have at the ready, if only to meet decorating needs for December. Many of us will look to the Christmas tree sales lots for branches of Fraser fir to use for wreath making, vase filling or mantel covering. But the gardener is blessed who has a ready supply of glossy holly leaves laden with red berries to add color and brightness.

Hollies, of course, come in many styles, but a few special ones bear the prettiest leaves and loveliest array of red berries. These are big bold plants suited for hedges or larger corners, where they can grow to mature height and bear the maximum crop of berries. Fortunately, they grow beautifully in the Piedmont, are sold widely and don’t demand a lot from the gardener.

The top choice, I believe, is American holly, which slowly grows into a large evergreen tree, tall and spreading. It is worth the space because this distinctive tree possesses shapely leaves and red berries that many artists use to decorate Christmas cards, coffee mugs and calendars. Many varieties exist, including the notable Carolina No. 2. Keep in mind that this tree requires space and patience.

Not all of you have space or patience for an American holly. The Nellie R. Stevens holly makes an excellent choice, even if you are not the only one on the cul-de-sac growing it. It has been a very popular landscape plant in the past 20 years, and rightly so. Nellie bears lustrous green leaves and bright red berries. But its assets go beyond cuttings for Christmas decorations. This is an excellent corner plant for a tall house or a big corner you want to fill. It tolerates shade and isn’t particular about soil, except it doesn’t like wet soil. It can stand alone, pruned into a graceful pyramid, or used as a dense evergreen screen. It matures at 15 to 25 feet, but pruning will keep it shorter, and most people will want it shorter.

A third type of red-berried holly produces no leaf in winter, but the effect is quite stunning. These are the deciduous hollies, commonly called winterberry. The red berries that form in fall as the leaves drop make an outstanding show until January or later. Red Sprite is a choice selection, growing about 5 feet high and wide. Winter Red grows about twice as high, with a great quantity of berries. Winterberry plants require a mate to produce pollen that will help create the fruits, and these are usually sold with them. The male plants don’t bear fruit, so they can go in the back. Stems of these leafless hollies look very dramatic in vases.

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