THE HOLLY and the ivy . . . in Yuletide language you know the rest, of course, particularly at this time of fun, festivities and Father Christmas.
There’s no doubt that when a holly is full-grown there is a certain crowning glory about it, just like that carol indicates.
Yet this huge and complex race of trees and shrubs holds a few bizarre riddles that surely leave the unsuspecting holly hunters with furrowed brows.
Who, for instance, would think of naming a female holly Golden King and male hollies Silver Queen and Golden Queen?
Well, that’s not all. Edward Goucher, James G. Essom, William Cowgill and Indian Chief fool us all by being “lady” varieties.
With their roots deep in folklore, superstition and religion, hollies are also famed for their “gender bender” quirkiness.
Around Christmastime, ilex – to give hollies their botanical title – are everywhere, both as decorations adorning the house and looking majestic in garden or countryside and in full berry.
Actually, only female hollies bear berries. Unlike many plants, holly is dioecious, meaning there are both male and female plants growing separately.
Many males have vivid variegated foliage in either silver or gold and can look even more striking than those with “berried treasure”.
Yet there’s little doubt that most gardeners prefer varieties encrusted with those familiar berries, or drupes, in red, black, yellow, orange and even white and all in high demand by hungry birds at the tough end of the year.
Most of the “Christmas hollies” are forms of Ilex aquifolium, a clan that includes those magnificent “girlie boys” Silver Queen and Golden Queen, both holders of the RHS Award of Garden Merit. But this pair are not so popular for decking the halls as there are no berries, but the spectacular, creamy-edged Golden King that’s simply studded with scarlet berries is a hard act to follow.
Rosemoor, the RHS garden at Torrington, holds one of the National Collections with more than 170 different species and varieties. Right now the berried beauties will be looking their best in their spiny armoury and vibrant jewels. It makes a stunning hedge too.
Robust, versatile, easy to grow in sun or shade – varietgated varieties prefer full sun – and oozing magnificence on a grand scale, hollies can be thorny or thornless, deciduous or evergreen and contain more than 500 species and varieties. So you’ve got a pretty wide choice!
⏩⏩➡» If you are looking for a good holly-read, I commend the book Hollies for Gardeners, published in 2007 by Timber Press and penned by Rosemoor’s former curator Christopher Bailes. Superbly illustrated and full of fascinating facts and figures, the book’s 287 pages will surely make you something of an Ilex expert by the time you’ve finished.
⏩⏩➡» Top: It’s the holly with the ivy featuring Ilex Alaska; above left – Nellie R Stevens; right – Golden van Tol. All three pictures were taken at Rosemoor.