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Holly Plants for the Winter Garden | Garden Compass

Burford Holly

Burford Holly, Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii’

It is that time of year when we “deck the halls with boughs of holly,” but did you know there are over 400 kinds of holly belonging to the genus Ilex, that can be found in every region of the world except Australia and Antarctica? Its heavy, pale wood was traditionally used to make the white chess pieces (ebony was used for the black ones). Faberge fashioned the cases for his famous bejeweled eggs from holly and between the 13th-18th centuries, holly foliage was fed to cattle and sheep. The ancient Celts believed that twin kings, the Holly King and the Oak King, personified the fall-winter and spring-summer seasons. During fall and winter, the Holly King reigned supreme, but when the days grew longer, the balance of power shifted to the Oak King. The Celts also viewed the changing of seasons as the cycle of life, birth and death and that the holly was symbolic of life and the coming spring.

Among the many species of holly, consider growing Burford Holly, Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii’, hardy in zones 7-10. It is a perfect shrub for winter interest with shiny, dark green, almost spineless leaves that won’t prick you and brilliant red berries. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy its floral nectar in spring and many other birds feast on the berry buffet in fall and winter. It will grow 10-14 ft. tall and 6-10 ft. wide, but can be pruned to a more compact size. It is a wonderful landscape focal accent or evergreen hedge. For a diminutive version, select the 4-6 ft. tall Dwarf Burford Holly. Until established, provide regular water especially during warm weather, but is also ideal for Mediterranean conditions. Plant from containers in spring or in fall where winters are mild and site in full sun with amended, well-draining, slightly acidic soil. Prune for desired shape and fertilize with a slow release or organic fertilizer formulated for holly shrubs just before new growth in spring. Once established, Burford Holly is water thrifty, but for optimum blooms and berries, water regularly.

Another holly that grows well in zones 6-9 is Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’ a variegated English holly that is an evergreen shrub with glossy, deep green, sharply pointed leaves edged in creamy hues. It can reach up to 20 feet tall and 12 feet wide that bears petite white flowers in spring followed by bright, red ornamental berries if grown with a male pollinator. Plant this Ilex in partial to full sun in well-drained soil and water deeply about once a week. The key is to keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Feed in spring with a slow release or organic fertilizer formulated for evergreen shrubs in the early spring. Before new growth emerges, wear sturdy gloves to protect against the prickly-edged leaves and prune the plant for shape or to cut off any dead, diseased or crossing branches and to promote good air circulation.

There are a couple of caveats. Although the berries are decorative, particularly during bleak winter months, they are toxic to humans and pets, but are an important food source for birds and other animals. It reseeds easily, and it is because of this vigor, that some states such as Washington have put Ilex aquifolium on the invasive plant list.

While decking your halls with boughs of holly, consider planting holly in your garden for year-round interest, beauty and food for bees, butterflies and birds. To our Garden America friends, may this be the best time of the year…and have a holly, jolly holiday season!


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About the author

Sharon Asakawa

Sharon and her husband Bruce Asakawa have published six books including their latest, California Getting Started Garden Guide: Grow the Best Flowers, Shrubs, Trees, Vines & Groundcovers in 2013 and in 2014 she and John Bagnasco co-authored the book Planting Designs for Cactus & Succulents: Indoor & Outdoor Projects for Unique, Easy-Care Plants-In All Climates. She is also the co-host of the nationally syndicated Garden America Radio show airing every weekend, editor of the online weekly Garden America newsletter and oversees the advisory board for the Garden Compass app.