Grow Your Own Christmas Holly

Use evergreen holly and ivy for Christmas decorating ideas, and then expand those designs to the rest of the year.

| November/December 2015

  • Most holly varieties bear red berries.
    Photo by Fotolia/Miguel Garcia Saavedra
  • The traditional red berries of holly can cluster among light or dark green leaves.
    Photo by Fotolia/Anne Kitzman
  • Use holly, ivy and evergreens to create a beautiful wreath for the front door.
    Photo by Fotolia/Marilyn Barbone
  • The traditional red berries can also highlight a green-and-white variety such as Argentea Marginata, a type of English holly.
    Photo by Fotolia/Phillip Minnis
  • The yellow fruit of the American holly Goldie offer an alternative to the red berries found on most other holly varieties.
    Photo by David Liebman
  • Christmas wreath of berries and evergreen.
    Photo by Fotolia/Barbara Helgason

Most of us simply think of holly as a beautiful shrub with glossy green leaves, pristine white flowers and brilliant red berries, and we often associate it with the Christmas season. Holly is much more than just a pretty bush, though.

History and lore

The history of holly dates back to Roman times. The Romans associated the evergreen holly with bringing colorful cheer to the darkest time of the year. They often presented branches to one another at festivals. Later, the druids, Celts and Britons also associated holly with life and continuity during winter solstice celebrations, and they frequently brought berried branches into their homes. Holly has long had a strong association with Christmas, as indicated in writings from the 15th and 16th centuries. Today, evergreen holly remains a symbol of the joy of life, continuity and Christmas.

Selecting and caring for plants

Many varieties of holly exist around the world, but the plant used most often for creating Christmas decorations and displays is the evergreen English holly (Ilex aquifolium). Native to western and southern Europe, northwest Africa and southwest Asia, this holly is mainly associated with Christmas – past and present – in Europe, but it is now also grown and used at Christmastime in many other parts of the world. Fresh cuttings of English holly are widely sold in North America during the holiday season. Instead of purchasing it, though, why not grow your own?

The majority of our holly varieties enjoy a well-drained soil, supplemented with organic matter, and slightly on the acidic side. A few like or tolerate more neutral to even slightly alkaline soils. Most plants prefer partial sun in hot summer areas, though in cooler coastal areas, the plants can handle sun or shade. Some even tolerate full shade quite well.

One common characteristic of most holly plants is that there are both male and female plants, which enables the females to bear fruit. However, there are some cultivars that have been developed to be self-fertilizing. It is said that the best berry production occurs with five females for every male. Males and females also have to be within 30 to 40 feet of each other.

Most hollies are highly attractive to many birds, such as the cedar waxwing. At times this can be a concern for humans, as the birds sometimes will eat most of the berries on your tree before you have a chance to cut the branches for decorating purposes. Most hollies are deer resistant and salt tolerant. Prune most hollies to the shape desired in late summer.

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