November 15, 2019

Haul Out the Holly

Janine Pineo Photo | Snow on holly

Janine Pineo Photo | Snow on holly

• By Janine Pineo •

Winter wonderlands are nice, but how about adding a splash of color here and maybe a flower there?

Four-season gardening can take on new meaning once you establish a plan to include plants that are at their best in the off-season.

I got started several years back with a pair of hollies, and next spring I expect to add several hellebores, curious plants that usually bloom before winter ends.

Like most plants, holly and hellebore have legends attached to their histories.

Holly, according to “Forget-Me-Not: A Floral Treasury,” was the Holy Tree to medieval monks, its spines representing Jesus’ “crown of thorns,” its white flowers purity and Jesus’ birth, and its red berries blood. The first holly sprang up under the footsteps of Jesus, according to legend.

Hellebore has less of a Christian influence, despite the fact that some varieties are commonly called the Christmas rose. The plants were thought to cure madness, although I’m not sure in what way, since all parts of it are highly poisonous.

In ancient times, according to “Forget-Me-Not,” folks who gathered hellebore had their own mad little method: First you ate garlic, then you circled the plant with a sword. After that, you turned east to pray to Apollo for permission to dig up the roots. Meanwhile, you kept an eye out for eagles, because if you saw one coming, it meant your death within a year.

With that hoot, let’s talk holly, the genus Ilex that claims about 400 species of red- and black-berried plants.

What has surprised me most about some of the species is their size potential: English holly, I. aquifolium, tops out at about 50 feet, and American holly, I. opaca, can hit 70 feet.

Both English and American hollies sport red fruits and evergreen leaves that make them stand out in the winter landscape. Since pruning doesn’t hurt the plants, trimming the branches to the desired form can lead to striking trees.

Unfortunately, English and American hollies prefer Southern comfort. I haven’t found any that are hardy to my home’s Zone 4 climate, although some American holly is Zone 5, which includes parts of Maine.

A tougher species is Chinese holly, I. cornuta, with some varieties that can survive in Zone 4. This East Asia native grows only about 10 feet tall, but its evergreen leaves and bright red berries make it a classy shrub all year round.

When I bought my hollies, I chose a “fruiting pair” of blue hollies, both hardy to Zone 4. The female plant is Ilex x meserveae “Blue Princess,” a gorgeous shrub with shiny, dark green leaves and bright red berries.

My lone “Blue Princess” has done well over the past few years, although I think it needs to be moved a few feet away from the woods’ edge for more sunshine. This variety could reach 12 feet tall with a spread of about 9 feet when it’s mature. Since it has withstood a few winters, I think the chances for survival are good.

I’m not sure I’d say the same for “Blue Stallion,” the male holly. It is still growing but only sporadically. Next spring I will move it, too, away from the woods and into more sun — I’m sure “Blue Stallion’s” near demise totally rests with my faulty placement. Only once has it blossomed and pollinated “Blue Princess,” but perhaps it can be saved.

“Blue Stallion” could grow to 16 feet tall and 12 feet wide (I’d be happy with half that), and one plant can pollinate up to 10 female plants within a 300-to-400-foot range.

For next spring, I’ve got my eye on another holly, I. verticillata, better known as winterberry or black alder. I never would have guessed that this deciduous North American native is a holly, because I always picture evergreen leaves with the berries.

I like the looks of a Wayside Gardens offering, “Winter Red,” touted as a heavy fruiter even in the shade. The foliage turns bronze in the fall, but the number of berries on each branch is stunning. “Winter Red” is another big plant, up to 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide.

If hollies are too big for your landscape, then a hellebore might be a better choice.

Part of the buttercup family, Helleborus has about 20 species of perennial herbs from Eurasia.

The Christmas rose, or H. niger, acquired its name because mild weather around Christmas might induce the plant to begin blooming. Once it does, the delicate-looking, five-petaled flowers remain for weeks atop the leathery foliage, which stays year round.

H. niger thrives in the shade and does well under shrubs like azaleas and rhododendrons. The plants prefer moist soil high in organic matter.

For blossoms later in winter, there’s H. orientalis, called the Lenten rose because it might blossom in February around Lent.

This hellebore comes in a lovely mix of colors — from white to green to pinks and creams — most dusted with freckles. Lenten rose has to be planted in shade and grows 12-15 inches tall. It’s hardy to Zone 4.

Both hellebores make good cut flowers, especially if picked before the buds open. The bouquets are said to last more than a couple of weeks.

Wayside Gardens introduced “Royal Heritage” hellebores earlier this year, calling the plants “tough as nails,” disease-free and low-maintenance. The new cultivars are hardy to Zone 4 with colors that include the more striking maroons and reds. Royal Heritage hellebores are 18-24 inches tall when mature, with a spread of 2-3 feet.

With flowers that resemble single-petaled roses, what more could any self-respecting winter wonderland need?

Oh, how about a whole hedge of hollies?

First published in the Bangor Daily News in December 1997.

2012 update: The hollies are thriving, growing slowly more each year. See the picture for berry proof.