“Holly” generally brings to mind evergreen species like English holly (Ilex aquifolium) or American holly (Ilex opaca) which are grown for their ornamental spiny foliage as much as for their red berries, but there are also deciduous species with soft leaves that are shed in autumn. The best evergreen hollies are beautiful, stately trees, but for a punch of winter color, they can’t compete with the deciduous hollies whose heavy crop of berries are never hidden by leaves.
Two species of deciduous hollies are native to the piedmont, and I grow both of them in my garden, along with a commonly cultivated hybrid. Their leaves are falling now, so they’ll be looking their best until hungry birds eat the berries in late winter.
Ilex verticillata (Winterberry)
I. verticillata thrives best in damp, acidic soil and full sun, but it will tolerate dry soil and part shade. Dwarf clones of I. verticillata (e.g. ‘Red Sprite’) are great for small gardens, but since we have plenty of space, I planted the full-size ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Winter Gold.’ I. verticillata ‘Winter Red’ will approach 8 feet tall (~2.4 meters) and spread a similar distance with somewhat sprawling branches and root suckers. Once they have their own roots, I have found that the suckers are easy to transplant, and removing some of them helps the shrub too look a little more tidy.
I. verticillata ‘Winter Gold’ apparently originated as a mutation of ‘Winter Red,’ so apart from the berry color, the two clones are almost identical. At first, I wasn’t very impressed with ‘Winter Gold,’ finding the color somewhat anemic, but over the years it has grown on me. The golden berries of ‘Winter Gold’ look best in front of dark mulch, while those of ‘Winter Red’ are most dramatic against grass or snow.
All hollies are dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate plants. Thus, to set berries on female plants like ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Winter Gold,’ you need a male plant that blooms at the same time. For these late-blooming I. verticillata clones, the best pollinator is I. verticillata ‘Southern Gentleman.’ I have a single ‘Southern Gentleman’ tucked away at the edge of the woods, and it is sufficient to pollinate my three plants of ‘Winter Red’ and one ‘Winter Gold.’
Unfortunately, deer are very fond of the young twigs of I. verticillata which lack the spiky defenses of evergreen holly, and if the hoofed pests consistently nip off the new growth, you will end up with an awkwardly shaped bush and far fewer berries. If you are in the piedmont and don’t garden behind a deer fence, you’ll need to frequently apply repellents.
Ilex decidua (Possumhaw)
As seen in the comparison picture below, the berries of I. decidua are significantly smaller than those of I. verticillata. The I. decidua plants that I have seen in the wild have been upright shrubs, generally taller than wide, and the one in my garden has the same shape
I have not planted a male I. decidua, but my female plant sets a good crop of berries every year, probably after pollination by male I. opaca (American holly) trees that grow wild in the woods around our house. I’m not sure if I. opaca pollen can produce fertile seeds on I. decidua, but I have never found any seedlings that appear to be hybrids.
Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’ (hybrid winterberry)
I. ‘Sparkleberry’ is a hybrid of I. verticillata and a Japanese deciduous holly, I. serrata. After growing both ‘Sparkleberry’ and I. verticillata ‘Winter Red’ for about ten years, I don’t think the hybrid is an improvement over the native species. ‘Sparkleberry has a slightly more upright and elegant appearance, but its berries are smaller than those of ‘Winter Red’ (see above), and they don’t tolerate very cold weather, becoming soft and discolored when those of ‘Winter Red’ are still perfect.
In my garden, I. ‘Sparkleberry’ blooms a week or two before late-blooming I. verticillata, so I can’t depend on it being pollinated efficiently by I. ‘Southern Gentleman’. The best pollinator for I. ‘Sparkleberry’ is I. ‘Apollo,’ a male sibling from the same cross. I have a single plant of ‘Apollo,’ which I forget about for most of the year, because it is such a nondescript shrub.
Conclusion: Grow the native species.