Ilex: holly bushes to grow for berries and evergreen leaves
Lustrous leaves and bright berries make Ilex (holly) the perfect evergreen shrub in winter. Shrub expert Andy McIndoe gives advice on how to grow them, and plant expert Roy Lancaster recommends the best Ilex to grow in your garden. Photographs by Jason Ingram
Ilex is a genus of around 400 species of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs with the common name holly.
The holly season sees autumn and winter berries that are perfect for your Christmas wreath, and heights vary from 60cm to 25m. Most are easy to grow in sun or half-shade and on average garden soil.
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Season: Evergreen foliage has year-round appeal, although hollies come into their own in winter when female plants bear fruit.
Size: Variable in size from compact shrubs with a height and spread of 90cm, to small trees over 6m high.
Conditions: They grow on most, reasonably moist but well-drained soils in sun or partial shade.
How to grow Ilex
Shrub expert Andy McIndoe has growing advice for planting and caring for holly in your garden.
Where to grow Ilex
Evergreen hollies are easy to grow, succeeding on most soils. They dislike waterlogged conditions and heavy clay, but need some soil moisture to thrive, so are rarely at their best on dry, chalk soils and seem to prefer neutral to acid conditions.
Hollies grow in sun or part shade and are useful subjects to plant under the light shade of deciduous trees.
Ilex can be grown as longterm shrubs for pots and containers, if planted in loam-based growing medium. Remember to feed annually with a slow-release fertiliser and water regularly.
Their hardy constitution means they are suitable for open, exposed situations and most can tolerate coastal air.
How to choose Ilex
Hollies are mostly dioecious – in other words male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. Males outnumber females by as much as 18 to one. So, if you want a common holly with berries, planting a young specimen of the species is a lottery. Luckily, there are hermaphrodite, self-fertile cultivars that set a good crop of fruit without the need for a pollinator, such as Ilex aquifolium ‘J.C. van Tol’. Or buy a plant with berries on it in autumn or winter.
How to plant Ilex
Ilex are best planted as young, container-grown plants at any time of year, although ideally in autumn or early spring. Occasionally, Ilex aquifolium, if used for hedging, is planted as small, bare-root plants.
When to prune holly
The evergreen types are versatile shrubs, which respond well to pruning and clipping, most making excellent subjects for hedging, topiary and training as standards. Holly growing as hedges and topiary are usually clipped in late summer.
Old, untrained plants can become straggly with long trailing shoots with a few leaves near the tips. These can be successfully rejuvenated by cutting back hard in spring.
Variegated hollies occasionally produce plain-green shoots, known as reversion. This growth should be cut out as soon as possible. It is more vigorous than the variegated plant, so can soon take over.
Like all evergreens, hollies shed old leaves in summer. This is especially noticeable if the weather is hot and dry and leaf drop is sudden. Rarely cause for concern, this is merely part of the growing cycle.
The best Ilex to grow
Here are Roy Lancaster's top 16 types of holly to grow for bright autumn and winter berries and evergreen foliage interest.
A small tree or shrub of dense, narrow columnar habit with dark shoots, smaller, spiny leaves and red berries. Height 6m.
Buy from Larch Cottage Nurseries
A distinctive female holly of German origin with a columnar habit and small, narrow, relatively smooth but spine-tipped leaves and small bright red berries. Height 3m+
Buy from Welsh Holly
This female develops a broad, umbrella-shaped crown, with numerous branches drooping to the ground. Prickly, dark green leaves and rich purple shoots. Height 3m+
Buy from Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery
This female of Dutch origin has relatively smooth leaves and reliable crops of red berries, produced without the need of a pollinator. AGM*. Height 5m+
Buy from Crocus
My favourite holly needs space to develop its broad-based, dense column, clothed with large, glossy, boldly veined and spine-toothed leaves. Free-fruiting. AGM. H 10m+
Buy from Chew Valley Trees
A vigorous, broadly columnar or narrowly conical tree with both prickly and smooth green leaves. It is also free-fruiting, even on young plants. AGM H 8m+
Buy from Jacksons Nurseries
Probably the best yellow-berried English holly, this is very effective when used with orange-berried I. x aquifolium ‘Amber’ and red-berried hollies in a mixed hedge. H 8m+
Buy from Gardening Express
The moonlight holly has plentiful red berries and leaves that are suffused with pale yellow and especially effective when young. Best in full sun. H 5m+
Buy from Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery
This cultivar has smooth gold-splashed leaves and abundant red berries. May produce green-leaved reversions which should be pruned away when still small. H 8m+
Buy from Harley Nursery
Strong growing female holly of conical habit with bold usually spineless, glossy-green leaves with a striking cream to creamy-yellow margin. AGM. H 8-10m+
A male holly that makes a reliable pollinating partner, ensuring that female hollies bear berries. Suited to gardens of intermediate size. H 8m+
The long-lasting orange berries are freely borne among glossy, dark green, almost spineless leaves. It makes a handsome large bush or tree. AGM. H 6-8m+
Buy from Junkers Nursery
Strong-growing male with purple shoots and large, glossy leaves. A reliable pollinating partner for fruit-bearing female hollies. Best suited to large spaces. AGM. H 14m.
A female holly of recent introduction with an upright habit; the narrowly cream-margined, wavy leaves set on purple shoots are purple-flushed in winter. H 4m+
Buy from Bowhayes Trees
This popular dense-growing shrub bears small leaves with cream-coloured margins. Sterile male flowers. Good for small gardens. AGM. H 2-3m.
Buy from Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery
One for the collector - a slow-growing female but shy-fruiting holly forming a dense mound of crowded purple shoots clothed with curious long, narrow and twisted, glossy green leaves with pale midribs. H 1.5m-2m.
Where to see and buy holly
• BlueBell Arboretum & Nursery
Annwell Lane, Smisby,
Ashby-dela-Zouch, Leicestershire LE65 2TA.
• Highfield Hollies
Highfield Farm, Hatch Lane, Liss,
Hampshire GU33 7NH.
• Penwood Nurseries
The Drove, Penwood, Newbury,
Berkshire RG20 9EW.
• RHS Garden Rosemoor (Holds the National Collection of Ilex species and cultivars.)
Torrington, Devon EX38 8PH.
• The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens
Jermyns Lane, Ampfield, Romsey,
Hampshire SO51 0QA.
• Welsh Holly
Tenby Road, St Clears, Carmarthen,
Carmarthenshire SA33 2JP.
Andy McIndoe lectures to gardening groups and societies at home and abroad, leads gardening tours and is consultant to well-known suppliers in the garden industry.
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