Lee Valley Tools    Gardening Newsletter
   Vol. 7, Issue 9
   December 2012
   Boughs of Holly
Golden margin English holly
A fine example of golden margin English holly (Ilex aquifolium 'Aureo Marginata')

I love hollies and don't even pretend to understand those who don't. It is impossible not to admire such a perfect plant. Holly has all the attributes a gardener can ask for. It is attractive year round with its handsome glossy and often spiny foliage, its tiny but prolific (typically) white flowers and of course its most striking feature, brilliant berries.

Of the more than 400 species, all of which belong to the Aquifoliaceae family, the majority are evergreen, with only a few deciduous species. Hollies grow in a variety of climates worldwide. Most are easy and adaptable growers that are drought resistant and salt and shade tolerant. The exception is variegated cultivars, which usually need more sunlight. Moreover, hollies are relatively disease-resistant, with the exception of fungal leaf and twig blight. Avoid these by having an open planting site with adequate spacing between plants to allow for air flow. Pests, such as leaf miners, scales and bud moths, are rarely a serious problem. Hollies have a tendency to become overgrown, but they respond well to pruning. The best time to do this is in late winter or early spring before new growth appears.

Hollies accept any planting medium, from heavy loam to sandy soils, as long as it has good drainage and is acidic. You can increase the acidity of your soil by adding some peat moss to the planting hole. Application of acidic mulches such as pine bark or pine needles may be beneficial, although their influence on soil acidity is debatable. I fertilize all young and newly planted hollies twice a year for several growing seasons until they are well established. Nitrogen-rich fertilizer for acid-loving plants, for example 21-7-7, is a good choice. Hollies will adapt to the more acidic soil required by rhododendrons and azaleas, thereby making them good companion plants.

All hollies, including trees, shrubs and climbers, are woody plants with smooth bark and simple, alternate leaves. Not all hollies have spiny foliage, nor do all of them have shiny leaves. Those with glossy foliage have a wax layer that covers the leaf's thick cuticle, insulating and protecting the interior tissues. All hollies are dioecious, meaning female plants need a male plant in order to bear fruit. Fortunately, one male specimen can pollinate many nearby females.

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