Among the many plants identified with the Christmas season are the familiar and beautiful red berried holly plants. While these are the most recognized characteristics, this group of plants is one of the most exciting and diverse groups of trees and shrubs available.
Plants range in size from small shrubs to 50-foot high trees. Some have variegated foliage while the leaf color on others ranges from light green to dark bluish colored leaves.
Legends abound of the relationship of holly and Christmas. Holly was a popular winter solstice festival gift that honored the Roman god Saturn at this time of the year was later adopted as Christmas. Evergreen holly symbolized eternal life to the Druids as plants always stayed green.
Christians adopted some legends and at times it was called the holy tree. Some said the sharp leaves symbolized the crown of thorns on Christ's head and the red berries symbolized his blood and that hollies grew wherever He walked.
Another Christian legend explains that one winter night, holly miraculously grew leaves out of season to protect the Holy family by hiding them from Herod's soldiers. It remained evergreen as a token of Christ's gratitude.
Another legend maintains an orphan boy was living with the shepherds when the angels announced the Savior's birth. Having no gift, he wove a holly crown but when he presented to the newborn babe, he was ashamed of his poverty and began to cry. When Jesus touched the crown it sparkled and the orphan's tears turned into beautiful scarlet berries.
While the legends go on and on, growing holly in Utah is not a myth or a legend but it does take special effort. Their preference for rich, acidic soil keeps them from thriving here without special care and protection.
Most holly species grow in areas with much higher humidity and less intense sunlight than we have. The foliage is easily damaged by our intense winter sun and dry, cold winds so plant them on a northern or eastern exposure and protect them from damaging winds.
All holly trees belong to the Ilex genus. This group includes about 400 to 600 species, many of which have a much different appearance than the traditional appearance of the English holly or American holly. Red Butte Garden has a deciduous holly growing there and other types grow in selected gardens in the state.
Most species are dioecious, meaning that each plant bears either male or female flowers. Only the females bear attractive berries but you need at least one male plant for several females to provide pollen for the fruits that form on female trees.
If you are interested in trying to grow holly here, try the Meserve hollies. They were bred by Kathleen Kellogg Meserve, an amateur horticulturist from Long Island. She wanted to develop an English-style holly that would withstand the harsh Northeastern winters.
Meserve cross-bred Ilex rugosa, a low-growing, cold hardy Japanese type with Ilex aquifolium or English holly. The hybrids have dark blue-green, spine-tipped foliage and are very cold hardy.
Because they come in pairs, her series include Blue Girl and Blue Boy, Blue Prince and Blue Princess. Blue Angel is a female-only cultivar that is the least cold hardy so I would avoid that one in our area.
China Boy and China Girl were also some she released. Other similar introductions include Blue Maid, Honey Maid, Gretchen, Dragon Lady, Centennial Girl and Golden Girl which are female introductions and Blue Stallion which is a male selection.
If you want the holly look but already know that with your soil pH it is a waste of time and money to try planting them in your landscape, don't give up all hope. Mohonia fremontii, Fremont barberry, is a drought-tolerant native plant that has bright yellow flowers followed by red berries.
Fremont barberry will grow up to 8 feet tall. Its holly-like foliage is a waxy gray-green. The fruit is relished by rodents and birds. It grows naturally in southern and eastern Utah and is available from nurseries that specialize in native plants.
Oregon grape and creeping Oregon grape also have a holly-like leaf, but all these plants have blue rather than red berries. These are commonly sold in local nurseries and grow well in partial shade. The can develop beautiful reddish foliage in the winter.
Dispelling the myth of growing holly in Utah is difficult but not impossible. Select the kinds that will tolerate your soil and pat attention to their other growing need to ensure success in your garden.
Garden tips and events
The Holly Society of America Inc. is a nonprofit organization with members throughout the United States. The society stimulates interest, promotes research and collects and disseminates information about the genus Ilex. Contact them at www.hollysocam.org.
Fresh cut holly branches are available from local florists. Treat it as you would any cut flower with the stems in water and in cool areas. Holly berries are slightly toxic and can cause vomiting and diarrhea in humans. They are very important foods for birds and wildlife.
Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.