'Tis The Season To Love Holly

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One of the few evergreens native to Britain, the Common Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a spectacular tree for both its unusual foliage and bright red winter berries.


Originally used as a pagan symbol of fertility and to charm against witchcraft at the winter solstice, it was adopted in Christian worship as a representation of Christ’s crown of thorns and blood.


Hardy, shade tolerant, happy to be pruned, good for shrubby borders or as elegant specimens, hollies have a worthwhile place in every garden. As well as providing structure and colour all year round, the inconspicuous flowers of the holly tree are an important source of nectar for insects and the berries – or to be more technically correct the ‘drupes’ – of the female trees are essential winter food for birds.


There are a great many cultivated varieties available to gardeners and at Frank Matthews we grow an interesting selection of the very best, mostly from the species aquifolium and often with an RHS Award of Garden Merit as a further recommendation.


Ilex ‘Golden King’ is one of the most popular. Despite the name this is a female form so as well as the wide yellow margin on the large spineless leaves this tree is laden with bright red drupes in winter. As with all hollies Golden King can be pruned to be restricted in size or left to grow as a fine specimen tree of up to 7 metres in height.


Ilex aquifolium ‘Handsworth New Silver’ has stunning cream-edged leaves with dark purple stems that set off the variegated foliage superbly. it is also a freely fruiting female variety.


Ilex aquifolium ‘Alaska’  is an excellent choice for topiary or hedging. Again a female form that is covered in bunches of drupes. Alaska has a naturally compact habit with small, dark green glossy leaves that makes it perfect for shaping or cloud pruning to add informal structure to the garden.


One of the best male forms, admired for its striking foliage is ‘Silver Queen’. This variety has a dense shrubby habit making it ideal for smaller gardens and displays the most wonderful white margined leaves that are suffused with subtle pinks when they are young.


Not all hollies have spiky leaves: the ever popular ‘J. C. van Tol’ has lovely dark green spineless foliage and is one of the most reliable self-fertile fruiting forms. If you want a plentiful supply of red berried sprigs of holly at Christmas without the prickly leaves then this is the one to plant!