Story By Deb Terrill Photography By Ron Capek
In a Chicagoland winter, we may or may not have snow. With snow, any garden can look good. Without it, we must pull out a few garden decorating tricks to provide relief from a palette of sepia and stone. Adding a splash of red here and there is a fine way of generating excitement, and when the garden gods do bless us with snow, those winter reds glow and create real garden art.
Holly berries, a symbol of the holidays as old as time, can find a comfy home in most gardens. It is true that they like a slightly acidic soil and ample moisture, but siting them carefully, perhaps near a downspout in well-amended soil, will allow most gardeners to possess them.
For big clusters of bright red berries in winter, a little understanding of the holly is helpful. There are male and female holly plants, and to produce berries, you will need at least one male. When purchasing hollies, ask for assistance to make sure you get one male for every three to seven females. This selection process has been made easier for us by the naming of varieties. ‘Blue Prince’ is clearly a boy while ‘Blue Princess’ is its girly counterpart.
Most of the evergreen hollies sold in our region are meservae hybrids of the blue holly group. These are mostly crosses of two extra hardy hollies, Ilex rugosa and Ilex aquafolium. ‘Blue Prince’ and ‘Blue Princess’ and ‘China Boy’ and ‘China Girl’ are popular selections, but newer hybrids within this group are introduced frequently. Among these are the German introductions, ‘Castle Wall’, ‘Castle Spire’ and ‘The Honeymooners’, which is said to be self-pollinating. ‘Casanova’, a stunning male selection that also hails from Germany, has painterly variegated leaves.
Some gardeners consider evergreen hollies only marginally hardy, but cold hardiness is seldom the problem with Meserve holly culture. In his “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants,” Michael Dirr cites numerous instances of Meserve hollies surviving sub-zero winters with varying degrees of leaf damage, from none to moderate, but no deadly woody tissue damage. If the plants have an Achilles heel, it is the same sensitivity to heat and drying winds that challenges all broadleaf evergreens in northern Illinois.
Protection is the key word for evergreen hollies — siting them away from wind, in full sun to part shade and with adequate soil moisture in summer and fall. Hot season soil moisture is of paramount importance. (‘China Boy’ and ‘China Girl’ are said to be more heat-tolerant.) Our tendency to situate them next to foundations, where roof overhangs prevent rain from penetrating the soil and lime leaches from the foundation, is often our most grievous error in handling these lovely shrubs.
You will know if your hollies are suffering from too much alkalinity in the soil because they will develop pale green leaves or yellow leaves that are only green along the veins. It is difficult to change the pH of your soil, but you can sometimes make a noticeable difference by adding oak leaf and pine needle mulch and using a fertilizer formulated for broadleaf evergreens, such as Espoma’s Holly-tone®.
In addition to the shiny evergreen hollies, we are blessed with a native holly, Ilex verticillata, which loses its leaves but bears clusters of bright red fruit that persist in the winter. One of the most popular cultivars is ‘Winter Red’, which develops arching branches of heavy fruit clusters. It is best pollinated by ‘Southern Gentleman’, a good male pollinator for most Ilex verticillatas.
‘Red Sprite’ enjoys huge popularity as a compact form, growing to 4 by 4 feet instead of the usual 6 by 6 feet. Another popular selection is a hybrid of I. verticillata and I. serrata called ‘Sparkleberry’. This a big girl, capable of reaching 15 feet tall, and best used in massed naturalistic plantings. ‘Apollo’, an equally big boy, was specially bred as a pollinator for ‘Sparkleberry’.
Deciduous hollies prefer wet soils, doing very well in ditches, streamside and near ponds. But that doesn’t mean the average gardener can’t grow them. Once they are established, which means a couple of years of extra watering and some topdressing with organic soil amendments, they do very well in ordinary garden settings. They respond well to heavy pruning in which a third of the older stems are cut to the ground each year.
The most obvious choice for red winter stem color is the red-stemmed dogwood group. Cornus sericea (sometimes called C. stolonifera) is a valued native whose contribution to the landscape reaches beyond its coveted red stems. This suckering plant is adaptable but really thrives in wet soils where it provides food for songbirds, ground-dwelling birds, ducks and geese. It is the preferred nesting site of the American goldfinch.
There are also blood-red-stemmed varieties in the Asian species Cornus alba. It and C. sericea are often confused in the trade, along with their cultivars. Although both prefer moist or wet, slightly acidic soil, the red-stemmed dogwoods can be very tolerant of most soils once established.
A Minnesota variety of C. sericea called ‘Cardinal’ is said to be reliably red in winter, as are ‘Baileyii’, ‘Brilliantissima’ and the newish ‘Arctic Fire’, which is bright red and compact in height. The native Cornus sericea is considered to be the true red-stemmed dogwood. Even the common species has red stems, whereas C. alba’s stems are barely reddish. However, two C. alba cultivars, ‘Siberia’ and ‘Bloodgood’, are said to rival C. sericea, as well as being a bit less apt to sucker freely.
Don’t be alarmed when your red-stemmed dogwoods display greenish stems in the warm months. They may also look less than red in the nursery when you select them. It takes cold weather and leaf drop to bring out the color.
Some gardeners may be put off by the notion of selectively pruning these suckering plants. It couldn’t be easier, though, since the stems provide us with a convenient color-coded pruning guide. When the older stems turn gray, simply cut them off, all the way back to the ground. The new, young stems will all be brightly colored and the shrub will stay within bounds size wise as well.
I have always been a big fan of the Washington hawthorn tree, especially when it is grown in a clump form. The bright red berries stay hard, which may account for the fact that the birds seem to leave plenty of them on the trees over the winter. I have seen many cardinals and cedar waxwings eating the fruit in the fall, but the bright berries that persist over the winter are highly decorative. Whenever you see a wonderful photo of a winter cardinal nibbling a bright berry or an ice-encased cluster of ruby fruit, it is likely that you are looking at a cluster of Washington hawthorn berries.