Have A Holly, Jolly Christmas

December 12, 2008 | By | Comments (17)

‘Winter Red’ Winterberry

No plant is more closely associated with the holidays than holly. But many people are sadly ignorant of the showiest winter hollies of all — the deciduous hollies. Let the Grump enlighten you.

Deciduous hollies differ from more familiar types, such as American holly (Ilex opaca), ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly (Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’), and yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), in that they lose their leaves for the winter. Down South, folks get upset by this, as they think any plant that loses its leaves looks dead. But trust me, it’s a good thing.

The leaves of evergreen hollies stay one color — green. Those of deciduous hollies turn bright yellow in fall at the same time as the berries turn red. It’s a spectacular combination.

Things get even better after the leaves drop. Clusters of sparkling red berries smother the naked stems. Naked has never look so good — on a plant anyway.

You’ll Love These Hollies

Possumhaw (Ilex decidua) is one of the two really showy deciduous hollies commonly found in gardens. The other is winterberry (Ilex verticillata). Many people can’t distinguish the two, but when you’re as knowledgeable as the Grump, it’s easy. First, possumhaw twigs are silvery-gray, while those of winterberry are dark brown to blackish. Possumhaw leaves are oval to oblong with rounded tips, while those of winterberry are lance-shaped and have pointed tips. Finally, possumhaw grows about twice as big, up to 25 feet tall.

Both species have separate male and female plants with only females displaying berries. Cross-pollination is necessary for fruiting. A female possumhaw, such as ‘Warren’s Red,’ can be pollinated by a male American holly or a male possumhaw, such as ‘Red Escort.’ A female winterberry, such as ‘Winter Red,’ can only be pollinated by a male winterberry, such as ‘Southern Gentleman.’ For both possumhaw and winterberry, one male will service about 6 females. Each time, it will cost him dinner and a movie.

Where to Buy
Many local garden centers carry deciduous hollies, but if you can’t find them, good mail-order sources include Fairweather Gardens (www.fairweathergardens.com) and Forest Farm (www.forestfarm.com). If you only want the berries for decorations, local nurseries and florists also sell winterberry branches covered with berries. You can make an incredibly bright and colorful winter arrangement by inserting these branches into a pot filled with soil or oasis. In a subsequent post, the very virile, manly Grump will get in touch with his sensitive side and show you some cool arrangements he actually helped to create.


  1. Steve Bender

    Sorry I’ve taken so long to answer, but I’ve been on vacation. If you like spindly, spindly is OK. An easy way to correct spindliness, though, is by pruning your plant into a pyramidal form. Nellie Stevens likes regular pruning and will thicken up quickly.

    October 29, 2012 at 5:32 am
  2. Raine Wells

    I have a nellie stevens holly I planted about 6 years ago. Don’t go all grumpy on me, but I was a neglectful holly mom and it is sort of spindly. It does get berries, but it doesn’t look like the pictures of other people’s hollies. I don’t have holly envy, but I don’t want her to die either. Is spindly okay?

    October 18, 2012 at 10:01 pm
  3. moncler doudoune

    Good stuff as per usual, thanks. I do hope this kind of thing gets more exposure.

    November 23, 2011 at 1:10 pm
  4. karen

    thank you so much!

    June 28, 2010 at 7:41 pm
  5. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    If you cut them back now, you’ll remove lots of flower buds. No flowers next spring, no berries next fall. If you want to cut them back, do do immediately after they finish flowering next spring.

    June 28, 2010 at 4:06 pm
  6. karen

    a belated winterberry question. I have two females and a male planted almost two years ago. they seem to be getting taller, but not wider. Is there any benefit to cutting them back to promote branching? If so when? Some gardening sites say not to touch them.

    June 27, 2010 at 2:12 pm
  7. Grumpy Gardener

    You are wise beyond your years.

    May 1, 2009 at 8:20 am
  8. Gardening Seeds

    wow!!! very nice post thanks!!!

    April 30, 2009 at 10:09 pm
  9. Grumpy Gardener

    It’s a pitcher of margaritas — the only truly essential gardening accessory.

    February 4, 2009 at 1:28 pm
  10. Helen @ Gardening With Confidence

    Girly, only because that pitcher of lemonade threw me – clearly it should have been a pitcher of beer.

    February 4, 2009 at 1:03 pm
  11. Grumpy Gardener

    Sorry about the delay in answering, faithful Grumpians. I must have been sampling my Xmas bourbon.
    You can probably plant a male holly within 50 feet of a female and get good pollination. As the male grows bigger and produces more flowers, pollination will improve even more. Of course, the closer you plant the male to the female, the better the chances for berries.
    As for transplanting possumhaws, yes, now is a good time. Try to get as big a rootball as you can with each of them.

    December 31, 2008 at 10:50 am
  12. ladyd

    I have around twenty possumhaw hollies on my property can I transplant some of the smaller ones now?

    December 30, 2008 at 3:56 pm
  13. Don

    Dear Grumpy,
    How close to the female plant does the male pollinator need to be planted? Thanks! Don.

    December 29, 2008 at 1:57 pm
  14. Grumpy Gardener

    Not everybody likes it. Helen (Gardening with Confidence)
    says it makes me look girly. There goes MY confidence.

    December 17, 2008 at 3:40 pm
  15. Cameron (Defining Your Home Garden)

    I’ve always admired the deciduous hollies. Thank you for the details. If I ever get around to gardening our woodland, I want to add deciduous hollies.
    I like the new web design! Very clean.

    December 16, 2008 at 5:14 pm
  16. Grumpy Gardener

    You’re most welcome. In his haste to enlighten the world about these negelected shrubs, the Grump forgot to mention his favorite selection of winterberry — ‘Red Sprite.’ This selection is a dwarf in size only, growing 3 feet tall. However, it has the largest red berries of any deciduous holly I’ve seen.

    December 15, 2008 at 10:24 am
  17. Jean

    Dear Grumpy,
    Thanks for the tutorial on possum haw and winterberry.I can go forth and plant! There are some plants growing in fence rows in a low lying place around town.I,not being as educated on hollies as the Grump cannot tell you if its winterberry or possum haw.Difficult to get to them and dig..so I have checked out forrest farms and so far I want them all! Thanks again Grumpy…

    December 13, 2008 at 5:46 am

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s