In the Garden: Hollies
Hollies Brighten a Winter Garden
by: Lucy Apthorp Leske
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Like Munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz” who stay hidden until the excitement is over, native Nantucketers eagerly await the departure of the summer hubbub to come out of the woodwork and reestablish themselves in the community.
They are everywhere now, on park benches, in the restaurants, walking the streets and breathing the fresh air of freedom after the crowds and noise of summer chased them into hiding.
The Munchkin phenomenon is not restricted to people. Three of Nantucket’s most cherished native plants also stay under cover all summer, only appearing and showing their true colors come fall and winter when other plants drop their foliage and retire. They are Nantucket’s native hollies, two evergreen and one deciduous.
Like all true natives, they are a rare and unusual breed: sturdy, hardened against the vagaries of Nantucket weather, understated yet interesting because of their unique characteristics. This time of year they show their true colors and add interest to our native landscapes and home gardens.
Most people don’t think of holly as a native plant because its image and lore have been long associated with holidays and traditions that predate the western colonization of North America. The Latin name for the English species, Ilex aquifolium, means evergreen oak and describes the lobed and pointed leaves that frequent paintings, carvings and decorative objects far older than our own nation.
Native to Europe, English holly was said to have originally sprung from Jesus’ footsteps and was commonly used in church decorations. Holly, however, was around long before the Christian church, apparently used in Roman and pagan celebrations and by Druids to decorate their homes in honor of sylvan spirits.
Pliny claimed that holly warded off evil spirits, lightning and poison. Medicinal uses include treatment for pleurisy, catarrh, colic, influenza and smallpox and date to the Middle Ages. Birdlime, a sticky paste made from holly bark and fat, was shipped to and employed in tropical climates for catching insects.
So, holly was well-known to America’s first settlers. When they saw the American version growing along our shores, they were delighted to see a familiar face. American holly, Ilex opaca, was once a common sight in American forests with a range that extended along the Ohio Valley from New Jersey to Missouri, across Arkansas into Texas, and as far south as central Florida. Growing to 30 feet or more with a classic pyramidal shape, the characteristic lobed and needled evergreen leaves, and bright red berries in winter, American holly stood out in our forests as an old friend.
Today, due to development and over-collection, native stands of American holly are rare. One of the most impressive natural stands of American holly remaining in this country can be found at Fort Hancock in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. A 1,665-acre barrier-beach peninsula on the northern tip of the Jersey Shore, Fort Hancock restricts usage of its property, luckily saving this rare maritime forest from damage and development.
Protected from salt and wind by a large dune field, some of the trees there are over 200 years old with trunks 20 inches in diameter and heights of 60 feet or more. In southern areas of its range, American hollies have been reported to grow nearly 100 feet tall.
Nantucket is arguably the most northern extent of the American holly’s original range. Here, buried in Nantucket’s stands of beech, maple and oak woods near the cranberry bogs, Squam and Coskata swamps are a handful of rare native American holly trees, protected from wind and nestled into pockets of earth that stay evenly moist year-round.
Extremely difficult to find in summer because they are camouflaged within the thick foliage of surrounding trees, hollies emerge in winter like Munchkins when the deciduous trees shed their leaves and reveal the evergreen hollies’ hiding places.
But the American holly isn’t the only hidden gem in these swamps. Its cousin, inkberry (Ilex glabra) also hides there beneath the thick scrub of azaleas, sweet pepperbush, ferns, viburnums and other native plants. The evergreen inkberry is not a tree but a shrub with smooth, oval leaves and black berries in winter. Its original range in North America is similar to that of American holly, preferring the soft damp soils and semi-shade of fresh-water swamp margins. Not nearly as rare, the inkberry is still hard to find, not only because Nantucket represents it and the American holly’s northern native range, but also because its habitat is shrinking, hemmed in by development.
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, in other parts of the country inkberry is much more common, occurring frequently on coastal plains but more often in “… pocosins (woody marshes), savannas, low woods, and pine barrens and woodlands. It is a common understory species of several fir-climax communities and an invader of frequently burned areas. On well-drained sites of bayland and pocosin communities, it is a dominant species… (and) one of the most conspicuous members of the understory of longleaf pine forests in Florida.”
Because inkberry is one of only a few hollies that spread by underground roots, fire may kill its top but the roots remain viable and send up new growth within the year.
The true star of Nantucket’s native hollies, however, is winterberry (Ilex verticillata), for several reasons, not the least of which is its abundance. Unlike inkberry and American holly, winterberry’s natural range extends much further north than Nantucket, with hardiness that extends from USDA zone 3 through 9. In fact, winterberry is the most common and widespread native holly in North America.
Simply put, winterberry is more fecund than other varieties. American holly spreads by seed, inkberry by seed and roots to some extent, but winterberry is downright promiscuous. It tops its cousins in berry production, and it is nearly indiscriminate in its choice of habitat, preferring wet soil but tolerant of all Nantucket’s weather and soil conditions. Winterberry downright thrives on exposure and can even survive with its roots covered in water.
Abundance aside, winterberry’s flagrant berry display could stop traffic (in fact, one of its cultivars is named Stoplight). One of only a few deciduous holly species worldwide, winterberry drops its leaves in the fall, revealing its glorious red berry crop which can be seen from miles away. Nantucketers prize winterberry for its decorative qualities, braving poison ivy, ticks and soggy shoes to gather the branches for holiday boxes and planters. Festive and glorious, winterberry truly brightens the winter landscape.
All three native hollies can be easily tamed for the home garden and have been widely hybridized to produce a range of choices for different situations. For example, numerous varieties of American holly have been created that produce narrower, shinier leaves and berries not only in shades of bright red but also orange and yellow. Well-adapted to our landscapes and soils, American holly is an excellent choice for home gardens that have the space to accommodate its mature size of 30 feet in height.
Donald Wyman’s book, “Trees for American Gardens” (Macmillan, 1990), outlines in some detail the hybridization of the American holly that has taken place over the years, most of it driven by the commercial holly foliage and berry production industry.
“The native American holly is one of the most sought-after trees for Christmas decoration … Large amounts of it are collected every year, and in some places it is grown merely for the production of fruiting branches that are reaped for the Christmas trade.”
He goes on to report that over 1,000 varieties have been developed, but most nurseries carry only a handful, most of them highly reliable and proven performers in the home garden.
Here on Nantucket, although the English holly is more widely planted, the American holly is much better adapted to our sandy, dry soils. Not surprisingly, given the holly’s prevalence in New Jersey, many of today’s best cultivars originated from the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, including the popular Jersey Delight and Jersey Princess. The variety Longwood Gold produces yellow berries and chartreuse young foliage.
All hollies are dioecious, meaning both male and female plants must be present within pollinating distance in order to produce berries. Experts recommend planting one male tree for every nine or 10 females within a 40- to 50-foot radius. Plant sex is usually signified by a gender-specific moniker. For example, Jersey Knight is a male American holly cultivar, Apollo a male winterberry.
In the landscape, American holly has multiple uses. Its height and well-defined pyramidal shape beg for use as a specimen tree, planted separate and apart from other trees and shrubs to stand alone as a focal point. American holly also behaves nicely when planted next to or under taller deciduous shade trees. While it can take full sun, its leaves will burn and crack with such exposure. Light-dappled shade during the heat of the day favors the prettiest foliage. American holly has also been used extensively as a hedge. Because it takes well to hard pruning, it can be planted closely and trimmed, but it is not ideal for the first line of defense against wind and salt because its foliage will burn. Whatever its use, the evergreen foliage and bright winter berries are ornamentally useful year-round.
Inkberry is much better adapted to full exposure and, thus, is more versatile. According to Michael A. Dirr, professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia and one of the country’s leading experts on trees and shrubs, inkberry is in high demand these days, particularly in exposed gardens and landscapes.
“As part of the native plant movement, and with its superior adaptability, I. glabra is a natural for increased landscape use. Recent emphasis on wetland mitigation is another plus for the species. Inkberry has been utilized around the Cape Cod National Sea Shore Visitor Center in Eastham, Massachusetts, where the large irregular foliage masses make the building look as if it were set among them rather than the reverse.” (“Ilex glabra-The Inkberry Holly,” Michael A. Dirr and John H. Alexander III. Arnoldia 51:2, 1991).
Inkberry can be both a workhorse and an ornamental shrub in the garden. In summer, its glossy foliage and rounded shape can anchor mixed shrub or perennial borders.
En masse, it makes a very fine low hedge. Off-season, when other shrubs are dormant, inkberry’s subtle texture and billowy behavior feature more prominently against the browns and grays of the winter landscape.
Unfortunately, like all hollies, native or not, deer are fond of inkberry and can defoliate the plant in high-pressure areas.
What’s more, inkberry has the personality of an errant teenager and frequently does not do as it’s told. The varieties Densa, Compacta and Shamrock are often marketed as lower-growing forms with mature heights of four feet or less. In reality, inkberry does not stop to follow directions but, instead, tends to grow toward the mature height of the species, shedding lower leaves in the process and developing a leggy appearance. Fortunately, inkberry responds well to pruning and can be cut to the ground if it gets out of hand. Within a year, new dense growth will appear and all is well.
Winterberry is also valuable in the garden. Unlike inkberry, winterberry’s dwarf cultivars do as they’re told. The variety Red Sprite is delightful, grows to a mature height and spread of about three feet, and produces huge crops of white flowers in spring and red berries in fall which start to turn color in late September. If birds don’t eat them first, the berries persist on the plants throughout the fall and well into January.
Taller varieties abound and include Sparkleberry, Winter Red, Sunset and Cacapon. Winter Gold is a yellow variety.
As with all hollies, a male plant or two are necessary for pollination. Experts say that the best berries are produced if trees are able to flower during warm, dry weather when bees are abundant; a rainy spring or late frost portends poor fruit-set. One should also keep in mind that winterberry is a stoloniferous plant.
Consequently, it should be located where its multiple gray stems won’t interfere with neighbors but where their pale gray color and heavy winter fruit set can be enjoyed against dark backdrops.
Like L. Frank Baum’s fictional Munchkins, Nantucket’s wild native hollies make their presence known when they’re good and ready, when all the flash and dash of summer has vanished and the quiet season has returned. Indeed, in the garden or in the wild, it’s plants like holly that hold our interest for a full six months of the year until spring returns. In that way, we depend on them, even need them, more than other plants. For this reason, native hollies – American holly, inkberry and winterberry – belong in Nantucket gardens for their reliability, adaptability and ornamental interest. To paraphrase the holiday carol, of all the trees in the wood, the holly bears the crown.
Lucy Apthorp Leske is a contributing editor to Nantucket Today. She writes a weekly column, “Gardening by the Sea,” for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper.