The shining jewels of the holiday season belong to the genus of plants known as Ilex, the hollies. Be they bunches of twigs covered in glossy, pointy leaves and red berries, or bare stems loaded with fruit, holly brings brightness and life to the otherwise bleak winter season.
Hollies are native to many different parts of the globe; we in the western hemisphere are home to the deciduous but still colorful winterberry hollies and the evergreen but more subtly-fruited Inkberry, among others. Europe and Asia are where one will find the traditional evergreen hollies we associate with the winter holidays. All plants in the genus Ilex are dioecious, meaning the male flowers are on one plant, and the female on another. When planting, it is important to remember this, as berries will never, ever grow on a female holly bush without a male around to pollinate. Male and female plants do not have to be planted right next to each other, or in a 1:1 ratio, however. One male plant will provide enough pollen to cover at least 4 to 6 females. When purchasing these plants, make sure the male and female are compatible with each other; they need to bloom at the same time in order to have successful pollination.
Hollies of all kinds are excellent shelters for birds and other wildlife, and their fruits provide a needed food source after they have been frozen and thawed a few times. In fall and early winter the berries are very hard and not very tasty, cold cycles will soften both the fruit itself and the flavor. The berries should not be consumed by humans or mammals, as they are mildly toxic.
There are many different selected varieties of evergreen holly that are grown in Maine, the Meserve hybrids (I. x meserveae) being some of the more hardy and popular. They are hybrids, originating from species native to Europe. These are commonly referred to as blue hollies, and varieties like ‘Blue Prince’ (male), and ‘Blue Maid’ and ‘Blue Princess’ (females), being the most popular because of their deep blue-green foliage and bright crimson berries. ‘China Boy’ and ‘China Girl’ are more medium-green colored varieties whose berries mature and color slightly later in the season. There are variegated varieties like ‘Honey Maid’ that will grow here with lots of extra protection and care, but they are not as hardy.
The blue hollies do well when grown in a semi-shaded area that does get some direct sunlight. They are happy in all but the driest or wettest areas, but prefer a good organic-rich soil. Shelter from the wind is essential, especially in wintertime. They are a favorite of deer, so extra precautions may need to be taken to protect them from nibbling. Once planted, they do set roots and settle in fairly quickly, and grow rapidly. They take well to pruning, so can be controlled and shaped should the need arise.
Often times, in a particularly cold winter, the holly plants will die back to where they are protected by the snow. Usually this is not a problem, though it is terribly sad when it happens to a nice big shrub that took years to grow to the height it was at… Cut back what is not alive, and the shrub will recover. Given a little bit of extra fertilizer and care the following season, and a well-established holly plant will persevere and continue to thrive, even after a hard winter.