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14 Dec 2020

The holly collection at Threave Garden

Written by Michael Lawrie, Head Gardener
A man stands in a garden in front of a large yellowish-green holly bush.
Michael Lawrie beside Ilex crenata ‘Golden Gem’
While people often associate holly with Christmas, there’s a lot more to discover about this diverse group of plants. I’d like to invite you to delve into the world of holly – you never know, you might find one you really like.

Holly has long been believed to be a symbol of life and continuity. It has been adopted as an emblem of Christianity – the spiny leaves represent the crown of thorns, the berries signify the blood that was given by Christ as a symbol of salvation.

It’s also said that holly will ward off evil and negativity – cutting one to the ground is thought to bring bad luck. Druids once placed holly in their hair and beards to keep away evil.

Bringing holly inside to decorate homes at Christmas has been a tradition for many hundreds of years; decorating fir trees, as we do today, didn’t begin until the 1840s.

And if you’re ever out in a thunderstorm, a holly bush is considered the safest place to shelter under, as the leaves act like mini lightning conductors and will hopefully prevent you from being hit.

Close-up of spiky, bright green holly leaves.
Ilex aquifolium

Common holly (Ilex aquifolium) has spiny, glossy green leaves and shiny red berries. Interestingly, the leaves have 3–5 spines on both edges, which point upwards and downwards alternately – presumably to reduce the number of predators that will eat a mouthful of the spiky foliage.

At Threave, the holly collection has been added to since the School of Heritage Gardening was gifted the land from the Gordon family in the 1960s. I have a particular fondness for this plant and like to add to the collection whenever possible. The students used to get 20 hollies as one of their plant identification tests from me – lucky or not? I’ll let you decide!

A man stands in a garden in front of a large green holly bush, with a large stately home in the background.
Ilex crenata with Michael Lawrie

The collection currently consists of over 70 different types of holly (Ilex). Some of these are species plants such as Ilex ciliospinosa (Asian holly), others are cultivars, such as Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Ripley Gold’, but they all have a few identifying characteristics. All Ilex have alternate leaves (ie they grow alternately up the stem); they are dioecious (male and female flowers are on separate plants), with the berries being produced on female plants; and the berries are toxic to humans.

I’ve picked out some of my favourite plants below, but this selection is by no means complete. If you’re interested in our holly collection, you should visit Threave in the late autumn/winter to really appreciate these wonderful and interesting plants.

Ilex aquifolium ‘Bacciflava’ has exquisite green glossy leaves, some with spines and some without, but its truly excellent quality is the unusual yellow berries. These are glowing balls of buttery yellowness in the dark, miserable winter and really make this plant a great choice for domestic gardens.

Close-up of dark green, glossy holly leaves, with bright yellow berries.
Ilex aquifolium ‘Bacciflava’

Ilex crenata ‘Convexa’ looks nothing like a traditional holly, but instead looks like a box (Buxus) plant. It can be used as an alternative to box, where box blight and box tree moth have become a problem, as the foliage is tightly arranged and it tolerates regular pruning. It’s slow-growing nature makes it an excellent candidate for anyone looking for structure without needing to carry out too much maintenance. If you have a balcony or patio, it’s also a good choice for containers.

Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’ is one of those plants that can be grown in many different situations – from sun or shade to coastal areas or inner cities. It has many delightful qualities, two of them being its lovely variegated, spineless foliage and the beautiful, rich red colour of the berries. As it has no spines, it’s good in domestic gardens where children can play safely, while the variegation is excellent for brightening up dark, shady corners.

Close-up of variegated yellow-green holly leaves.
Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’

Ilex x meserveae is best known as the blue holly. Its foliage has a definite blue tinge to it – what a lovely different shade of evergreen colour to add to your garden, along with its opulent red berries. Compared to some Ilex, this variety is relatively quick growing; it usually grows to around 2.5m (8ft), so will still fit well within a normal-sized garden.

Close-up of glossy green holly leaves.
Ilex x meserveae

Ilex dipyrena originates from the Himalayas, hence its common name of Himalayan holly. The truly lovely thing about this plant is the downy covering on the young shoots. In its original habitat, this would have given the new shoots extra protection from the cold, but in a garden setting it just adds to its aesthetic qualities. The very large red berries give this plant another reason to make you want to grow it.

Close-up of holly leaves on a branch. They are less spiky than normal and there are some greenish berries.
Ilex dipyrena

Ilex x koehneana ‘Chestnut Leaf’ has, as its name suggests, a leaf shaped like that of a chestnut tree. A new addition to the garden at Threave, this plant was chosen for its glossy, large foliage, but the profusion of red, shiny berries certainly doesn’t make it a plant to put at the back of the border and forget about. If you have the space, make room for this one and give it its own stage to really show you what it can do.

Close-up of a cluster of red berries on a holly branch.
Ilex x koehneana ‘Chestnut Leaf’

So there you have it, I hope I’ve shown you that the genus Ilex isn’t as boring – or spiny – as you first may have thought!

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