Just like the song says, holly has been used for centuries at Yuletide. At this time of the year when most growing things are brown and lifeless, the holly bush retains its glossy green leaves and bright red berries. Because of this, holly became a symbol of life’s renewal and hope for the future. It was once believed that holly held the sun’s blessings, or that it possessed mystical powers. The berries were to ward off evil spirits and the branches would protect a house from witches and demons. Today we appreciate holly for its beauty and bring it indoors for decoration.
English holly, Ilex aquifolium, is but one species of more than 400 in the genus Ilex. Some varieties are evergreen and other are deciduous. Holly shrubs are dioecious, which means they have male and female flowers on separate plants. In order for your holly shrub to bear fruit, you must have both male and female plants growing in close proximity. One male plant can fertilize up to 12 female plants. English holly will hold on to its leaves and beautify your garden year round. Some hollies are grown as trees but many make nice garden shrubs. The hardiest hollies will grown in zone 5 with Inkberry (Ilex glabra) hardy to zone 4.
A few deciduous hollies are native to North America such as winterberry (Ilex verticillata) which is hardy to zone 3 and 4. It bears bright red berries that remain on twig branches throughout most of the winter.
Hollies are best planted in early spring and early fall .Most hollies prefer a slightly acidic soil with adequate moisture. To prevent winter burn they should be well watered before winter sets in. Most prefer sun in order to fruit but they will also tolerate light shade. Hollies benefit from a year round mulch and should be fertilized sparingly. There are few pests or diseases that bother holly and pruning holly bushes is only necessary if you prefer a more compact growth. If you do decide to prune, cut bak to lateral branches in late winter or early spring.
Although a shrub, holly can be trained as climber against a wall, fence or trellis and used as a screen. If your adventuresome you can even clip them into shapes like a topiary. In the right place, they make a good ground cover.
Clipped holly is very useful for Christmas decor indoors as it lasts a very long time before showing signs of dryness. Use in home crafted wreaths, table centers, on mantel displays and where ever else you have an idea.