Similar, but different

The variability of seedlings is illustrated on a brief jaunt through the garden viewing handfuls of native American holly (Ilex opaca) seedlings. While several have been dug and moved to locations better suited to the long term, all are native to the forest that borders the garden. All are readily identifiable as American hollies, and similar in appearance, but no two are identical, with leaf shapes that vary.

The lone American holly in the garden that can be verified as female since it has berries.
An American holly seedling with numerous spines and a narrower leaf than others.
An American holly seedling with a very typical leaf shape, but more spines than the garden’s female.

One seedling (above) found years ago growing beneath two yellow tipped ‘Sekkan-sugi’ Japanese cedars (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Sekkan-sugi’) has grown twenty feet or taller, but unfortunately it is partially obscured between the cedars and a wide spreading ‘Tardiva’ hydrangea. This is the only obvious female of the hollies (with berries), though others are younger with identities that are not yet clear since hollies do not berry while young.

There are many other hollies in the garden, and several seedlings (below) with glossy green leaves that are likely not to be American hollies. Some seedlings must be discarded, there is only so much space allotted to large growing evergreens, but I am curious to watch others grow. I note the nearest holly as the potential parent, but in an acre and a quarter garden a seed could be deposited anywhere by robins that consume berries in late winter.

A seedling holly of unknown parentage was found and transplanted to an area with room to grow. This holly is particularly spiny and upright growing. Similar hollies could be excellent for boundary hedges. The glossy, dark green leaves differentiate it from American hollies so I suspect it is a hybrid of the hollies below.
Christmas Jewel is a smaller and narrower grower than other common hollies. It often berries heavily. One of two Christmas Jewel hollies is lost in a mishmash of cryptomerias along with Little Red and Festive hollies that cannot be photographed with all lower branches lost to dense shade.
Koehne holly grows tall and wide, and has the most abundant berries of any holly in the garden. Koehne is rarely grown, but it is an excellent holly.
Dixie Star holly is similar in growth to Fosteri holly. Foster’s was once one of the primary hollies on the market, but it tendency to drop foliage after spring digging encouraged alternatives that have taken its place.
Nellie Stevens is the primary holly sold, with dark green foliage and abundant and dependable berries.
Robin holly is similar in appearance to Nellie Stevens, but with leaves that are slightly flatter.
Mary Nell has been around for years. It grows a bit wider than many hollies, but its appearance is similar.
In nursery production, Oakleaf holly grows long, unbranched central leaders that must be pruned so that young hollies fill in. A holly with identical leaves, Oakland branches more readily and it has supplanted Oakleaf in nurseries. Oakland and Oakleaf are narrower in growth than many other hollies.
Dragon Lady is an upright growing holly, narrower than other hollies and with more prominent spines. In this garden it does not berry, probably a matter of timing that it flowers when pollinators are not.
Variegated English holly is a male, and so it does not have berries. It grows very slowly in this area.

There are a number of other hollies in the garden, both Japanese (Ilex crenata, below) and Chinese hollies (Ilex cornuta) and hydbrids that are less upright and lower growing. Is this too many? Of course it is, along with too many of many other trees, shrubs, and perennials.

Rotunda Chinese holly

Next, magnolias, then Japanese maples.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Valerie says:

    I have 6 25-30 foot American hollies along my fence in my backyard with no berries. I researched them to try to determine if they were male or female, thinking that if they were female, I needed only to buy a male to plant near them, in order for them to develop berries. Unfortunately, when their flowers came out, I found out they were all male. When my husband planted them 25 years ago or more, we didn’t know enough about plants to ask for a mixture of females and males. I look out my kitchen window now, in the winter, and think about the lost possibility of providing wonderful berries for the birds. 😦

    1. Dave says:

      American hollies were rarely sold as cultivars until recent decades, so there was little way to determine male or female hollies. Today, planting of primarily female clones presents a problem with pollination only without a nearby male.

  2. donpeters43 says:

    I also have a large variety of plants in my home garden, but now in winter, most are now withered away or featureless. Except my Blue Boy and Blue Girl hollies, which have lush green leaves and bright red berries. Last spring I did an experiment and put about an inch of dried cow manure under my hollies, and it made a spectacular improvement! Lots and lots of berries with beautiful green foliage.

    1. Dave says:

      It seems that blue hollies are best suited to cooler areas to our north, but it is always encouraging to see a boost in growth. In this garden, decaying leaves are the only additions to improve fertility, but this seems to work well.

  3. tonytomeo says:

    Hollies are so under appreciated here, and none are native. I have not seen an American holly since 1990, when we were still in school. Even then, I remember that they are variable from seed, although I suspect that if there are any still out and about in old landscapes, that they were likely prehistoric cultivars of some sort. (I mean that they, even if they were not ‘cultivars’, they were likely grown from cuttings of particular parent plants.) I noticed a while ago that a few English hollies were sold as paired plants, so that a female cultivar came with its own pollinator. However, I doubt that anyone else notices enough to make sure that one plant did not crowd out the other. I could really get carried away on that subject.

    1. Dave says:

      Over the years I’ve seen a few nurseries brand blue hollies that mixed sexes in a single container. This simplified the equation for homeowners to be assured of berries, but it always seemed like a bad idea for long term growth.

      1. tonytomeo says:

        Yes, that is what I noticed; the blue hollies. I suppose that they will eventually graft together as the mature. However, I also suspect that one of each could get crowded out, or pruned out by someone who does not know of its importance. I would like to grow just one female English holly, and perhaps graft a male branch onto it, and be careful to never prune the male part out. A long time ago, there was a female holly hedge at the Winchester House in San Jose that produced berries impressively well. A singe male pollinator grew as a tree nearby. I do not remember what species of holly it was. It seems to me that it was English holly.

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