FEW PLANTS ARE AS CLOSELY ASSOCIATED with the winter holidays as the holly. Starring in at least two Christmas carols, holly has been used in traditional “hanging of the greens” since ancient times and is rich in spiritual symbolism.
These mostly evergreen shrubs make excellent holiday decoration material because of their bright green foliage and red berries. And their cut stems hold up well in arrangements.
Winter is when hollies shine. In any season, hollies are great structural plants, providing evergreen, pyramidal shapes that serve as backdrops for showier plants. But in the fall, they produce red berries that persist long into the winter months, vivid in a gray winter landscape.
You can add hollies to your garden and enjoy them annually as part of your exterior yuletide decor or take cuttings to weave into Christmas garlands, wreaths and floral displays.
Fall through early winter is the best time to plant hollies. They prefer well-drained, slightly acidic soil with a moderate amount of organic matter. Hollies will grow in shady sites, but the plants will be less full and will produce fewer berries. Planting in full sun will yield better decoration material.
Plant hollies with their topmost roots slightly above the soil grade—setting too deeply is a death sentence—and water well after planting. Your new shrub will require periodic watering through the first year. Even during winter, if rain is scarce, make sure your holly doesn’t completely dry out or the evergreen leaves may experience windburn.
Mature plants are surprisingly drought resistant and fairly low maintenance. Late-winter pruning is best to ensure good berry production the following year. Conveniently, you can prune your hollies and collect greenery at the same time.
Here are a few varieties that grow well in South Carolina and make outstanding holiday decorations.
Emily Bruner holly is one of my all-time favorites. Its large, darkgreen leaves pair with abundant berries, which usually persist well into January. Note that hollies are dioecious, meaning that individual plants are either male or female, with only female plants producing berries. It is not always necessary, but to ensure adequate berry production, consider also planting Emily’s male counterpart, the James Swan holly.
Emily grows slowly but large, reaching 20 to 30 feet in maturity, so give her plenty of room. Christmas Jewel holly is smaller, maturing at about 10 feet tall. It has much smaller leaves than Emily Bruner, but the fruit are large and don’t require a male pollinator. This makes a great plant for smaller gardens.
Winterberry holly, unlike the previous two, is deciduous—it will drop all its leaves in the autumn. Its red berries, however, persist through the winter and make an impressive show along the bare stems. Winterberry hollies typically stay under 10 feet tall. Winter Red and Sparkleberry, two of the best varieties, require a male pollinator to set fruit, so plant a male variety like Southern Gentleman or Apollo in an out-of-the-way place.
For more information about growing hollies or decorating with fresh greenery, visit the Clemson Extension Home and Garden Information Center.
S. CORY TANNER is an area horticulture agent and Master Gardener coordinator for Clemson Extension based in Greenville County. Contact him at email@example.com.