Cover Story Planet Northwest Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste

Jolly Hollies
They'll take any shape you like and brighten a winter day

Each leaf is margined in warm cream, with a crinkly twirl that makes it appear as if perpetually caught in a high wind blowing in different directions. The center of a leaf of Ilex aquifolium 'Golden Milkboy' is bright golden yellow trimmed in dark green; I. aquifolium 'Silver Milkmaid' is stunning with silvery white and green leaves and an abundance of scarlet berries. Some hollies are really tiny; Ilex 'Rock Garden,' growing to about a foot high, is perfect for containers.

When you choose a holly for your garden, think about its natural shape, habit and eventual size. Hollies are the most prunable of plants, although you'll want thick gloves for the task. They make handsome hedges, and one of the finest I've seen is an old one where the gardener has encouraged rogue seedlings to settle in and mix with the holly to create a thick tapestry reminiscent of a tidily trimmed hedgerow.

Hollies can be pruned into topiary, bonsai, kept a tidy size in containers, or pruned in the Japanese style into the rounded curves of boulders. Some are deciduous, most are evergreen, some form low cushions, others grow naturally into tall, slender cones. In fact, hollies come in every plant form except for vining.

If you want berries, remember that hollies are dioecious, meaning they come in male and female, and only the female bear fruit. You'll need one male of the same species for one or more females. The same-species part isn't a strict rule, as sometimes bees pollinate different holly species if they flower at the same time, but to be sure your hollies bear fruit, plant a same-species male nearby.

Holly is rich in symbolism and superstition, serving as medicine and legend in diverse cultures for thousands of years. The pre-Christian Druids in England and Gaul brought holly boughs indoors so woodland spirits could safely shelter from the winter cold - hence the first holiday decorations.

One old legend claims that all holly berries were yellow until Christ's blood spilled upon them, staining them red forever. But not all holly associations are so grim.

In Rome, holly wreaths were sent to newlyweds as tokens of good wishes, and holly has been used as a cure for coughs, rickets and tuberculosis. Many holly traditions have to do with decorating, no doubt because early peoples appreciated its glossy leaves and bright berries in the dark of winter, just as we do today. But be careful: In early England it was thought that if you decorated with smooth holly, the wife would command the household during the coming year; if prickly holly was used, the husband would be in charge.

I found these tales in Fred Galle's encyclopedic "Hollies: The Genus Ilex" (Timber Press, 1997, $59.95). If you prefer to stretch your legs while you learn, the holly collection at Washington Park Arboretum is a fine excuse for a winter walk. One of the oldest collections at the Arboretum, it has such a diversity of plantings that you'll never again be able to think of hollies as simply shapeless green bushes with red berries.

Now In Bloom: The leaves of false holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus) are evergreen, toothed and glossy, just like the real thing. But this genus has fragrant white flowers in autumn followed by round black fruits. 'Aureomarginatus' has foliage banded in bright yellow; 'Goshiki'is more compact (to 5 feet), with gold-splashed foliage.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian and writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. Her e-mail address is

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