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Showy Winter Shrubs

Showy Winter Shrubs

By Kate Karam, Monrovia
Photos courtesy of Monrovia


While most often thought of when decking the halls, glossy, glammy hollies are shrubs for all seasons. From elegant, dense hedges and spectacular stand-alone specimens to shapely foundation anchors, hollies are useful, tough, fuss-free shrubs. And, that’s not even talking about those jewel-like, bright berries! Here are five ways to use hollies (Ilex) in your landscape.

Hollies are a little black dress for the landscape—their classic shape and dark green or green-and-yellow-patterned foliage makes everything they’re planted with look that much better. And they’re versatile—ranging in size from a compact dwarf to a towering giant. Leaves may be small and spineless or large and deeply serrated. Berries can be red, orange, yellow, or black. As a landscape designer, hollies are one of my fail-safe favorites; as a nurseryman I recommended them to new (and experienced) gardeners knowing they would perform, even dazzle. Here’s how to use them.

Hedges and Screens

Because of their year-round foliage, ease of pruning, and generally quick growth rate, evergreen hollies are perfect plants for screens and hedges. Tight growers such as Chinese and meserveae hollies make good hedges, as do English hollies whose spiny leaves provide a useful barrier. For a thick, dense hedge, prune regularly. Note—unless indicated, hollies need a male and female plant to bear berries (the ratio is 1 male for every 10 female holly plants).

Three top performers:


Berri-Magic® Royalty Holly Combination

(Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Prince' & 'Blue Princess')
USDA Hardiness Zones: 5 - 9

A profusion of bright red berries fall through winter is assured because a male pollenizer is planted in the same container (blue hollies are a result of crossing English and Tsura hollies for cold-hardy plants with beautiful foliage). Line up and shear for a dense hedge or leave unsheared to attain full height and width for screens. Evergreen.


Santa's Delight® English Holly

(Ilex aquifolium 'Sadezam')
Zones: 6 - 9

Get out the clippers! Here’s one for holiday decorations. A true English holly with deep blue-green leaves bordered by a wide creamy-white border and bright red berries. A proven winter survivor where similar varieties have failed. A male English holly pollenizer such as Gold Coast® English holly will provide best berry set. Evergreen.


Nellie R. Stevens Holly

(Ilex x 'Nellie R. Stevens')
Zones: 6 - 9

A cross between a Chinese and English hollies, Nellie’s a vigorous grower with dense branches that makes an excellent tall screen. Though enhanced by a nearby male pollinizer, Nellie will produce a bumper crop of large bright orange-red berries regardless. Great choice for warmer Southern zones. Evergreen.


Here’s the thing about hollies as foundation plants—while stately, classy and downright old-money looking, when it comes to fronting the house, they can use a bit of help. Showy only in winter when they flaunt red berries, they look best in spring and summer when paired with flowering deciduous shrubs such as hydrangeas and viburnums or perennials such as grasses. These love company:


Dwarf Burford Holly

(Ilex cornuta 'Dwarf Burford')
Zones: 7 - 9

This dwarf, compact Chinese holly is a miniature version of one of the most popular hollies, particularly in warmer climates. Burford hollies are prolific bearers of large, bright red berries even without a pollinizer (known as parthenocarpy, if you want to geek out!) Evergreen.


Castle Spire® Blue Holly

(Ilex x meserveae 'Hachfee' P.P. #14,310)
Zones: 5 - 7

Tall and narrow, use this one to frame the border and soften the corner of the house by planting at the outer edges. Use Castle Wall™ Blue Holly as a pollinizer (within 30 feet of ‘Castle Spire’).


Scallywag™ Holly

(Ilex x meservae 'MonNieves' P.P.# 21,941)
Zones: 5 - 9

Maybe berries aren’t your thing, but you admire the bright green foliage? Scallywag is a compact holly (4 feet by 3 feet) that’s a problem solver for small gardens needing a solid evergreen structural shrub. Perfect for pots, too. (Ideal pollinizer for other meservae hollies.)


Want to attract wildlife to your garden? Native winterberries (Ilex verticillata) are deciduous hollies (only 30 species compared to more than 750 evergreen species) that lose their pretty leaves in winter. What remains is a breathtaking display of thousands of brightly colored berries clinging to every stem. Leave unsheared, loose and open and watch the birds flock. Native to wetlands, tolerate damp soils! Most require a pollinizer such as Mr. Poppins™ Winterberry for best berry set.  A few to consider:


Winter Gold Winterberry

(Ilex verticillata 'Winter Gold')
Zones: 4 - 8

A native holly with pinkish-orange berries that persist into winter and change to a golden-yellow color. Dense, upright habit with dense branching providing a handsome backdrop for the ornamental fruit. Deciduous .


Berry Nice® Winterberry Holly

(Ilex verticillata 'Spriber')
Zones: 3 - 9

Offering superior fruit set and retention, this native shrub performs in wet areas, with good mildew resistance. Produces copious amounts of dark red berries when a male is planted nearby. Deciduous.

Show stoppers:

Where you might use a conifer as a stand-alone, brake-slamming specimen, consider a holly instead. Tall and impressive all year round, they make a real statement in the winter when not much else is happening in the landscape. Two stunners:


Oak Leaf™ Red Holly

(Ilex x 'Conaf' P.P.# 9487)
Zones: 6 - 9

Tall, elegant and pyramidal (fast growing to 14 feet tall and 8 feet wide) its foliage emerges bronze to burgundy in spring and matures to emerald green; sets small orange-red berries without needing a male pollenizer. Evergreen.


Red Beauty® Holly

(Ilex x 'Rutzan' P.P.# 14750)
Zones: 6 - 10

Abundant bright red berries combined with dense, dark green foliage. Plant it in view of the street or picture window and string it with lights for a living Christmas tree. Maintains a dense, upright, conical form with little or no pruning. Plant a male pollenizer nearby, such as Ilex 'Blue Prince'. Evergreen.


From compact varieties that can be sheared into tight balls to tall, narrow columns, hollies are excellent container plants. Use them at the front door or wherever you need a punch of punctuation.

Two favorites:


Emerald Magic Holly

(Ilex meserveae 'Emerald Magic' PP #12,314)
Zones: 5 - 9

This cold-hardy cutie is a moderate grower that grows to a compact, rounded shape without shearing. It tops out at 4 feet tall and wide so it’s an excellent choice for a large container. While it’s non-fruiting, the dense habit and glossy blue-green leaves make it an elegant choice for a front door or patio. Evergreen.


Sky Pencil Japanese Holly

(Ilex crenata 'Sky Pencil')
Zones: 5 - 9

The narrow, columnar form is just right for small areas. Dark green foliage holds its color year round, sporting purple berries in fall. Planted in a large container, it makes an elegant, formal appearance. Evergreen.

Keeping Holly Happy:

  • Part to full sun; not a good choice for shade or as an understory shrub.
  • Prefers well-drained, moist, and fertile soil.
  • Winterberry and meserve hollies don’t respond well to shearing – hand prune once a year to keep long branches under control; other hollies require little pruning but tolerate severe pruning required for formal hedges and topiaries. Prune in spring to optimize berry production.
  • Feed in spring and early fall with Holly-tone or other fertilizer for acid-loving plants
  • Apply a layer of compost under the tree each spring, spreading it out to the dripline (the area under the outermost branches). Add a 2 inch layer of mulch to retain moisture and control weeds, keeping mulch a few inches away from the trunk.

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