The holly is the king of the evergreens, with handsome foliage that shines in winter.
Red berries may also follow and these add an all-important touch of red to the winter garden. These berries generally disappear into the beaks of birds in December, so if you want to decorate your house for Christmas try to pick the stems in early December and plunge them into water in a cool place. Otherwise the birds will beat you to it.
Hollies have been grown in British gardens for centuries. John Evelyn (1620 – 1706), who gardened at Sayes Court at Deptford in London, was very proud of his tall holly hedges. However William III lent Sayes Court to the Tsar Peter of Russia for three months in 1698 and the Tsar ruined the hedges.
Apparently he enjoyed being pushed round the garden in a heavy wooden wheelbarrow and went in and out of the hedges. A famous court case of the day culminated in Evelyn being compensated £350 for damages, nearly £40,000 in today's money, for damage to the house and garden.
Find out how to use evergreens to liven up a winter garden
Evelyn would have grown forms of English Holly, Ilex aquifolium, a prickly species that gets it species name from the Latin aquila for eagle. The spiny leaves, said to be as sharp as an eagle’s talon, make this an unsuitable plant for a border unless you have somewhat masochistic tendencies like Tsar Peter.
It’s our most common native evergreen and often found growing close to ancient oaks, or as a marker tree in hedges - indicating a parish boundary, a footpath or a bridleway. Despite its common name of English holly, it is also found across south and west Europe.
The needle-like prickles along each leaf are designed to repel grazing ponies and deer but, once this pyramidal tree outgrows the grazing zone, the upper foliage becomes much less spiny. This ruggedly handsome winter performer, a survivor from the last ice age, is also able to defy the coldest winter's day and has been associated with eternal life since pagan times.
Less prickly hybrid hollies
When orange trees were introduced in from France 1692 they were kept warm in specially built orangeries and soon other exotic plants joined them. Among them was an exotic holly introduced from Madeira, Ilex perado, and this had much larger green leaves and scented flowers. The orange trees and potted hollies were often wheeled outside in the summer months and the bees carried pollen from them to our native English hollies and new hybrids began to appear in woodland. It was first identified at Highclere Castle, now famous for Downton Abbey, by Loudon in 1838, so was named Highclere holly (Ilex x altaclerensis).
It had rounder leaves and few or no spines and there are many forms now. These faster-growing hollies can be grown in borders, or they can be trained into mopheads, or used to screen and hedge. The berries are larger, but generally as abundant.
Where to plant
Hollies prefer well-drained sandy soil but will thrive in all soils, apart from water-logged conditions.
Hollies can tolerate pollution, maritime conditions and wind.
How to plant
Dig a hole large enough for the root ball, plant and water in well. Keep the area surrounding a newly planted holly weed free by mulching or covering with a mulch mat.
Once planted, hollies resent disturbance, so buy younger, smaller plants - these are easier to establish.
If a holly has to be moved, lift carefully in late-winter or early spring, making sure you remove a large root ball. Water carefully for a year.
Hollies grow slowly and often appear to stand still for two or three years.
If your garden is prone to rabbit damage, protect new plants before they strip the bark.
Growing from berries
Plants raised from berries will be variable - but berries can be propagated by planting them in pots of sand placed in a cold frame or somewhere cool during winter.
Raise new plants from cuttings taken in late-summer or autumn.
Pruning and shaping
Clip holly hedges and topiarise them in August. If variegated hollies produce plain green shoots, remove them promptly.
How to use in garden design
Hollies are noble, architectural plants that have year-round presence and are often grown as solitary specimens on a large lawn. Shape and size are variable.
Gold and green variegated hollies can add a splash of cheerful sunshine to a dark corner. Silver variegation adds a cooler tone.
English Holly 'Argentea Marginata'
Hardy ferns, bergenias and snowdrops make good companions on the ground. Formal gardens with box hedging are the perfect foil for trimmed and shaped hollies, whether in pots or in the ground. The densely leaved green forms of Ilex aquifolium and the silvery 'Argentea Marginata' are excellent for making topiaries.
Getting berries on your hollies
Hollies are mainly dioecious. In other words, most forms have male flowers on one plant and females on another. Both are required for berries because pollen has to be carried between the flowers by the bees.
If you live in an area where there are lots of gardens you may get plenty of pollen. However it’s best to be safe and plant at least one male holly. He can service a harem of ladies. Lots of variegated hollies are males, but not all.
When choosing don’t go by the names. They’re confusing. `Silver Queen’ is a male for instance and ‘Golden King’ a female! `Martin’ on the other hand is a female.
Use a reputable nursery when you buy. They will know which are female and male. Or go to the RHS Plant Finder ( www.rhs.org.uk) . They list the gender in brackets, with an m or f, and also put v by the side of the variegated ones.
There is a self-fertile holly, ‘J C van Tol', with not-too-prickly, green leaves and berries that form along the stems. Although useful for florists, it isn’t a lovely garden holly because the stems are rather long and straight.
Favourite female berrying varieties of English holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Use these as specimen plants in need of space, because their lower, spiny foliage makes them unsuitable for using in borders.
‘Handsworth New Silver’ AGM
A very crisp-edged green holy, with a fine margin in cream. Named before 1850 and forms a broad, pyramid and berries really well. 7.5m when mature / 25ft
‘Madame Briot’ AGM
Another old variety, from 1866, but the golden-edged spiny green leaves are mottled olive-green and it berries abundantly. 7.5m when mature / 25ft
This 19th century variety has much less spiny foliage, an upright habit and it will berry without a pollinator. I feel it berries better with one though. 7.5m when mature / 25ft
Female berrying highclere hollies
These have lollipop leaves and they form rounded shapes, growing faster than English holly. The have a more open shape and tend to berry less freely.
A brightly variegated holly with dark-green rounded leaves splashed with grey-green and informally edged in creamy yellow. Not that many berries. 5m/ 15ft eventually
Handsome large rounded leaves in high-gloss green and lots of red berries right up the stems.
This is heavily variegated and each leaf has a golden-yellow middle overlaid in soft-green with darker green close the leaf margins. The berries area dull-red and there are not so many, but this probably has the best foliage of all.
Male holly as a pollinator
You only need one male holly.
Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Prince'
This free-flowering New York holly is perhaps the best pollinator for most other female Ilex aquifolium and Ilex x altaclerensis hollies. ( 3m/ 9ft)
Where to Buy
Penwood Nurseries (not mail order) for lots of well-grown hollies, www.penwoodnurseries.co.uk
Bluebell Nursery (mail order) for unusual holly varieties, www.bluebellnursery.com