On Gardening: A holly jolly Christmas for you and the birds

December 8, 2014

This mockingbird appears to be celebrating the season and his next tasty treat in this possumhaw holly

We are definitely going to have a Holly Jolly Christmas in our garden this year, and you can too for years to come. For us this is one of the great perks of being an old USDA Plant Introduction Station followed by more research conducted by the University of Georgia. It seems we have hollies wherever you look. Iím talking the kinds of hollies that are bringing out visitors of all sorts, from those that photograph the bright red berries to those that devour them.

Such is the case for two outstanding natives, the possumhaw (Ilex decidua) and the winterberry (Ilex verticillata). The possumhaw is native to 19 states from Texas to Illinois, eastward to Maryland and everything south. The possumhaw has been known to feed nine species of birds including the beloved bobwhite quail. The winterberry on the other hand is native over a much larger area, including 33 states and much of Canada. It feeds at least 20 species of birds and has been in cultivation since 1736. Thatís heirloom status in my book.

Both of these natives always catch your eye during the winter months which gives you a clue to their strongest attribute and a glimpse into why shoppers unfortunately pass them by. Both lose their leaves letting the berries glow like tiny ornaments for everyone to see. Then ó could it get better? ó you get to watch the birds feast on the bounty.

If you will pause and think, deciduous is not bad. You love the shimmering white blossoms of the spiraea and the cheerful yellow blooms of the forsythia. Why not gladly accept one or both of these hollies that adorn themselves with thousands of bright orange and red berries perfect for the Christmas season?

Possumhaws and Winterberries are easy to grow, and good nurseries normally have them. Choose female plants to assure berry production. Superior possumhaw cultivars are Warrenís Red, Pocahontas and Sentry. The berries on these are suggested to be either more prolific or larger than the native in the woods variety.

The same holds true for named selections of the winterberry. In our garden we grow the Winter Red variety which is absolutely stunning with thousands of berries but also keep your eyes open for Afterglow and Bright Horizon.

Regardless of the varieties you choose, plant in sun to partial sun and in the same places you might plant a crape myrtle. Use them to frame entryways for special accents or along driveways and around the patio. Anywhere the landscape looks drab in the winter is a great place for the possumhaw or winterberry holly to brighten. It is always a good idea to include a male variety in close proximity to insure maximum berry production. 

One well-known horticulturist said you could garden for 12 lifetimes and never see an insect or disease bothering the plant. In some years we may have our berries stripped by a waxwing, bobwhite quail or, in our case, mockingbirds have staked their claim. I think you will agree these are the type of invaders we are happy to see. Oh, yes, and as the name suggests, possums do find the berries a treat as well.

These native hollies do not like to dry out. They are at home in moist areas. If you normally have an abundance of berries, they can be lost if plants dry out. Although these are native it is a good idea to give them a little fertilizer in April and August.

This winter and spring when you are at your garden center choosing new trees or shrubs, the possumhaw and winterberry hollies are two of the finest choices. I hope you will give them a try



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