Longing for bright evergreen Christmas hollies

Posted Nov. 05, 2010, at 8:33 p.m.

I grew up in Georgia, where my father and I would spend winter weekends in woods, cornfields and cane breaks, following the nose of an English setter in pursuit of bobwhite quail. It was a joy to be in the winter woods. I have vivid memories of tall pyramidal evergreen trees, American hollies (Ilex opaca), true Christmas hollies with bright red berries adorning spiny dark green leaves.

At this time of the year, I miss red-berried evergreen hollies in both the local woods and in the garden. The sad fact is that, in all but coastal Maine, evergreen hollies of any fruit color are a rare commodity.

The inkberry holly (I. glabra), an evergreen species with black berries, is native to coastal regions of Maine and New Brunswick. It did not fare well in variety trials that I conducted while in Orono, dying back to the snow line every winter. It is definitely a Zone 6 shrub, perhaps Zone 5 if well protected from winter winds.

Inkberry grows to about nine feet in height and width, forming a mound of evergreen foliage that is dense in youth, more open at maturity. The fine-textured leaves are dark green in summer, more yellow-green in winter. The black berries persist on female plants through the winter and are highly valued by the birds.

There are several noteworthy cultivated forms of inkberry, including clones selected for compact habit. The male (fruitless) clone, Nordic, and a fruiting variety, compacta, grow to only four feet in height. ivory queen is an interesting white-fruited form.

Resistant to soil compaction and salt, inkberry holly should be more frequently used in gardens. I remember a well-tended garden in Falmouth where inkberry and summersweet clethra (Clethra alnifolia) were artfully combined to produce a beautiful display at all seasons of the year.

Still, inkberry does not satisfy the longing for a Christmas holly, for spiny leaves and red berries. For this, we have to pin our hopes on the winter hardiness of the blue hollies, a group of hybrid shrubs bred by Kathleen Meserve of Long Island, N.Y., beginning in the 1950s. This group includes the varieties “Blue Boy” and “Blue Girl,” “Blue Maid,” “Blue Prince” and “Blue Princess,” and “Blue Stallion.” These all have handsome, dark, blue-green foliage and, in the case of those with feminine names, red berries.

During my seven years in Orono, most of the blue hollies in the campus landscape got a little shorter each year, the exceptions being those that were tucked against warm walls away from winter winds. Even these plants grew very little compared to plants I have seen in Zone 6 landscapes. I do not think plants in this group of hollies can reach their potential in Zone 5, thriving in Maine only along the Down East coast (Eastport area) and perhaps in the midcoast region if given adequate protection.

For those of us who garden away from the coast, there is no reliably hardy evergreen holly. We must settle for bright red berries clustered on naked branches, the winter display of our native deciduous winterberry (I. verticillata).

Meanwhile, I read that the American hollies of my boyhood are gone. Harvesting the berry-laden branches for Christmas decoration severely reduced the seedling population in many areas, leading to regional extinctions as the old trees died. There are more American hollies in landscapes now than there are in the wild.

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