Sunday, October 24, 2010

Holy Holly!

While I was talking to my mother last weekend, she asked me a question about Hollies. She wanted to know if they should be flowering right now, I gave her one of my solid answers of No,..... well Maybe. How is THAT for decisiveness?
I needed to look it up.
From all the research I have seen, flowering in the Fall is unusual. Hers are. Well, like we always say, apparently the plant did not read the research!
Hollies are a very diverse species of plants. There are over 400 species of the genus Ilex. While some Hollies are native to the United States, many were introduced from South America and Asia.
There are of course the hollies that you see all the time and can tell it is a holly. For instance you have the Ilex aquifolium, also known as the English Holly.
Makes you think of Christmas doesn't it? There IS a reason the song goes, "Deck the halls with boughs of Holly"!
Then there are the plants that if you didn't know them, you would not think of it as holly. For instance you have the Ilex vomitoria. This one is named because it was used by Southeastern Native Americans as a ceremonial stimulant known as "The Black Drink". As the name suggests, the tea's purgative properties were one of its main uses, most often ritually.
Also known as the Dwarf Yaupon Holly. There is a taller version of the Yaupon and a Weeping version of the taller one.
Okay, how about this one? It is commonly known as the Inkberry Holly, (Ilex glabra)
Doesn't really look like a Holly, now does it?

So as you can see there are MANY different characteristics of the Holly. They can be deciduous or evergreen, small (18") or large (over 50'), and may be rounded, pyramidal or columnar in form. There are many, many similarities however.
Hollies are dioecious plants which means male and female flowers are located on separate plants. Female plants produce berries while male plants do not.
Many selections or cultivars are female plants which produce attractive fruit. Most dwarf cultivars do not produce berries since they are commonly propagated vegetatively from male plants. A male plant must be in the vicinity to pollinate the female plant. Pollen is transported primarily by bees from distances of 1 1/2 to 2 miles. So there is a VERY good chance that there will be a male nearby to your female plant. Of course, like everything else in Nature, there are exceptions, and there are hollies that are self pollinating.
While most people find the berries very pretty, they are somewhat toxic to humans, though their poisonous properties are overstated and fatalities almost unknown. They are an extremely important food source for birds and other wild animals. The colors of the berries can range from the common red, to a yellow orange to black, depending on the cultivar.
Most hollies require well drained soil that is rich in organic matter and slightly acid. They can grow in sun or shade, but will produce more berries in a sunnier spot.
They prefer a moist soil, but certainly not wet. They should never be allowed to stand in water for extended periods of time as they will develop root rot. Irrigation will be needed if a dry spell occurs.
Fertilize established hollies in March with any good fertilizer that is listed for acid loving plants or hollies themselves.
Holly can be grown from seed, but is seldom done due to the length of time required and the variabilty of the seedlings. Cuttings are more commonly used. Done in the Spring time, cuttings should be 3 to 5 inches long and treated with a rooting hormone. A humid environment to minimize water loss is required for optimum rooting.
Hollies require minimal pruning except to train the plants for special purposes, (i.e. topiaries, animal shapes, etc.) or to remove diseased or dead branches. Since they produce berries in the Fall that remain throughout the Winter they should be pruned in late Winter, before new growth begins to emerge. Any heavy pruning after flowering in the Spring will most likely remove berries.
For the most part, if you take good care of your hollies, they are relatively pest free. The most common insect pests found include scale, leaf miners, mites and spittlebugs. Many different scale insects injure hollies by sucking plant juices from leaves and stems. A substance called honeydew is secreted by some scales and a sooty mold fungus grows on the honeydew. Besides the unattractive appearance of sooty mold, hollies infested with scale become weak and unproductive.
Diseases known to attack hollies include twig dieback, stem gall, and root rot. Again, if you take good care of your bushes, they should not have much problem.
Here are some interesting Holly facts I found:
The ancient Romans believed that holly warded off lightning strikes and witchcraft and sent boughs of holly to friends during the festival of Saturnalia, which is celebrated at the Winter solstice.
The use of Holly as a symbolic winter decoration, with its shiny, prickly leaves and blood-red berries, goes back in history to the Celtic peoples of Northern Europe, who decorated their homes with it during the time of the Winter solstice, or Yule.
The early Christian Church retained many of the Celtic and Roman traditions to help celebrate the birth of Christ. The early Celtic Christians associated the prickly holly leaves with the crown of thorns from the crucifixion and the red berries with the blood of Christ.
As many of you know, I love Christmas and I love using Green Holly bushes as decoration, but my absolute favorite Holly is the Variegated English Holly.

I will leave you with one more little Holly fact, well, it may not be fact, but I believe in it. Last year, I noticed that all the Holly bushes here where VERY heavy with berries and I predicted a cold Winter, which we got. I believe that Mother Nature produced a heavy crop of berries to feed all the critters over that cold Winter. I am noticing a light set of fruit this year and it has been predicted to be a warmer, drier Winter than usual.....coincidence? We will see!
Happy Growing!

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