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Have A Holly Jolly Christmas

Have A Holly Jolly Christmas



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For me, one fond childhood Christmas memory was Burl Ives' throaty rendition of "Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas." I must admit that in my early life, I had little appreciation for the holly that is mentioned in the song.

For most Utahns, holly is an uncommon plant. It's not often grown here, and most gardeners are only familiar with the plant because they occasionally see it in Christmas bouquets or read about it in articles or books.

In spite of our lack of local experience, the holly genus Ilex is a very diverse and widespread group of plants. It is the only living genus of the family Aquifoliaceae. Their widespread distribution means they grow in Asia, Africa, Europe and North and South America.

China has more than 200 native species, but most plants we would consider as landscape plants come from Europe or North America. The plants themselves are shrubs or trees that range from a few feet to more than 75 feet high. While most are evergreen and keep their leaves through the winter, a few species are deciduous.

Another important characteristic of these plants is that they are dioecious. That means they are separated into male and female plants. This is important scientifically, but also on a more practical basis.

The female plants are always the mothers and bring forth the fruit. But without the daddy, no fruit is produced. That means good holly plantings always have both male and female plants. Without both, the plants never produce a good crop.

How the plants became associated with Christmas is also an interesting story. Some attribute it to a Roman festival that honored Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, which was held near the winter solstice. Some think early Christians adopted the holly wreaths and other evergreens as they celebrated Christmas.

Eventually, Christian folklore associated the prickly leaves of holly trees with the crown of thorns placed on Jesus, and the berries symbolized the drops of blood he shed. Other folklore identifies holly wood as the wood used to build the cross at the Crucifixion.

Other legends focus on the winter solstice that occurs around Dec. 21 each year. Celtic mythology holds that the pointed holly leaves afforded magical protection against evil spirits and that holly sprigs brought into homes during the winter sheltered the forest fairies.

English holly (Ilex aquifolium) is commonly called Christmas holly. Because of the popularity of the English holly, early settlers here were delighted with the discovery of American holly. Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is a showy native shrub found on the East coast.

While the traditions are interesting, the question is, "Will these grow in Utah?" The answer is a qualified "yes." While they are not native here, there are some kinds that will adapt to favorable sites in Utah.

The real problem is our soil. Hollies prefer an acidic soil, and our soils are alkaline. In spite of this, there are a few large holly trees in northern Utah. Even better news is that with reasonable care, several shrub hollies will grow here.

The most hardy holly cultivars that have the true holly look are crosses of English holly and hardy species from northern Japan. The plants are slow growing and eventually get 6 feet high with spiny, glossy leaves with a bluish-green cast.

Again these are separated into male and female plants, so plant two if you want berries. The plants are specific about their partners, so buy two from the same series to make certain the pollen is viable and will produce berries.

Blue Angel is a broad spreading plant with a dense growth habit. Blue Maid is taller and more upright with more glossy leaves. Blue Princess is broad and spreading with dark red fruit. Dragon Lady is a taller plant with a pyramidal growth habit. Use Blue Stallion as a pollinator for this plant. Golden Girl is a yellow fruited cultivar.

While the traditions are interesting, the question is, "Will these grow in Utah?" The answer is a qualified "yes." While they are not native here, there are some kinds that will adapt to favorable sites in Utah.

The real problem is our soil. Hollies prefer an acidic soil, and our soils are alkaline. In spite of this, there are a few large holly trees in northern Utah. Even better news is that with reasonable care, several shrub hollies will grow here.

The most hardy holly cultivars that have the true holly look are crosses of English holly and hardy species from northern Japan. The plants are slow growing and eventually get 6 feet high with spiny, glossy leaves with a bluish-green cast.

Again these are separated into male and female plants, so plant two if you want berries. The plants are specific about their partners, so buy two from the same series to make certain the pollen is viable and will produce berries.

Blue Angel is a broad spreading plant with a dense growth habit. Blue Maid is taller and more upright with more glossy leaves. Blue Princess is broad and spreading with dark red fruit. Dragon Lady is a taller plant with a pyramidal growth habit. Use Blue Stallion as a pollinator for this plant. Golden Girl is a yellow fruited cultivar.

The Yaupon holly is the most tolerant of alkaline soil but is less cold hardy. It probably has the most interesting scientific name — Ilex vomitoria. It produces abundant berries even without a pollinator. Try it in a protected area.

For those with really alkaline soil, try the plant called "Utah holly." It's not a true holly, but Mohonia fremontii is a drought-tolerant plant that has a leaf that resembles a holly. Oregon grape and creeping Oregon grape also have a holly-like leaf, but all these plants have blue — rather than red — berries.

In short, holly is not for everyone. Some don't want to fight the problems with our soil and will choose other plants. However, if landscape hollies are not your choice of plants, you can always turn on Burl Ives and "have a holly jolly Christmas this year."

The Holly Society of America Inc. is a nonprofit organization with members throughout the United States. Its purpose is to stimulate interest, promote research and collect and disseminate information about the genus Ilex. Contact it at www.hollysocam.org.

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Larry A. Sagers

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