Holly Trees to Grow

 In Evergreens, Ornamental trees, Plant Focus, Trees and Shrubs, Winter colour

Holly Trees to Grow

In North Somerset there is the longest holly hedge in England. At least that is what they say. Whether it is or not is open to speculation!

It is easily seen along the B 3129 road that borders the National Trust property Tyntesfield House at Wraxall, and quite near Bristol.
Most of this hedge has no berries. It’s a very old hedge and it might be assumed that it lacks them because all the holly bushes planted so long ago were male.

In fact it is much more likely that there are none due to regular and tight cutting.

This is the most common holly which is Ilex aquifolium.


Male, female and hermaphrodite hollies

Now to get berries on holly trees you do need female plants…. but you also need males too!

red berries on holly tree

Ilex aquifolium ‘J C van Tol’

So if you want lots of bright red berries then the variety of holly tree you plant is vital.

Of course there are a few exceptions and some varieties are thought to be hermaphrodite.  These have both male and female flowers on the same plant.

The most common variety that is thought to be able to produce berries on its own is a variety called ‘J C van Tol’. However the downside is that the leaves of this one lack prickles and, well, don’t particularly look holly-like. That’s true for its rarely seen gold and silver variegated forms too.

An upright variety – aptly called ‘Pyramidalis’ – is also thought to be a hermaphrodite holly. It can be relied upon to have glowing red berries each and every year!

If you have room for only one holly tree then a hermaphrodite variety might be the answer for you. That is provided you don’t mind the leaves having very few prickles.

Male and female varieties

red berries on holly

Ilex aquifolium Alaska

So to get berries on a prickly leaf holly tree with some certainty you need to plant a female variety. But also be sure that there is a male holly tree not too far away too!

The bees, flies and other pollinating insects will carry the all important male pollen to the female flowers for a considerable distance. This is what is needed to get berries.

‘Alaska’ is an exceptionally good variety with deep green glossy prickly leaves that will deter even the most determined intruder. If you want berries with a green leaf then this variety is my first choice.





close up of holly flowers

Female holly flowers

close up of holly flowers

Male holly flowers



Variegated Holly Trees to Grow

There are some really great variegated holly varieties and even if they don’t produce red berries they are very showy garden plants.

Unfortunately some very promising variegated hollies were given names before they had flowered. As a result a couple of the most widely available varieties have misleading names!

variegated holly tree

Ilex x altaclarensis ‘Golden King’

‘Golden King’ far from being a king should really have been given the name golden queen. It is a first rate golden variegated holly but unfortunately it is a female! If there is a male holly in the vicinity then it will produce a good crop of berries. Golden King eventually grows into a magnificent specimen tree if left untrimmed. It is not especially prickly which lends it to use in door wreaths, flower arrangements and mantelpiece swags.

My wife Felicity Down demonstrates how you can make your own Christmas wreath in this short video here. This was filmed when we owned a nursery and garden centre near Bristol.

Of the many silver variegated holly tree varieties ‘Silver Queen’ [another variety given an inappropriate name before its sex was known] is probably the best known.

However I don’t rate this one. I have always found varieties such as ‘Handsworth New Silver’ and ‘Elegantissima’ to be much better holly trees to grow.



What conditions Holly Trees Like?

Of course hollies are renowned for being slow growing.

But they do respond to careful positioning in the garden. Regular after care such a s feeding and watering will pay off. Minimizing competition from neighboring plants until well established is vital.

It is said that hollies grow best on sandy soils. Also that they are intolerant of wet soil.

However a walk in the New Forest quickly debunks the drainage myth with many large hollies growing beside streams and in wet places.

Hollies will thrive on heavy clay soil once they are well established. In fact they grow well on virtually all soils. After all, this is one of the virgin species that colonized our land after the retreat of the ice sheets.  And so they certainly ought to be able to cope with some less than perfect soil conditions!

red holly berries on a tree

Ilex aquifolium ‘Pyramidalis’

Hollies and the birds

At the moment there are still berries on holly trees and this reflects a good spring when the trees were in flower and has nothing to do with predicting a cold winter to come!

Berries are often eaten as soon as we have a spell of cold weather. The migrant red wings and fieldfares from Scandinavia and Northern Europe feast on this arboreal bounty and quickly clear a tree of fruit. But our native blackbirds and thrushes like them too.

If you plan to decorate your home with holly this Christmas then it would be a good idea to get some sprigs cut soon. Get them stood in water in a cold shed where the birds can’t get at them.  Failing this get some bird scarers out to ward off the avian hordes for a few more days.

After all, there is no shortage of other fruits in our gardens and hedgerows this year.

Read here about other winter berries.

There are other plants that have male and female flowers on separate plants [and hermaphrodites too] and I’ve written about one of the main ones here. It’s Skimmia.

Of course there are lots of other garden plants that have berries in winter and I’ve written about many of them here.

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