Holly: A matter of Jersey pride

American holly                                               Jacinta Ilich Valero/Flickr

American holly                                               Jacinta Ilich Valero/Flickr

Holly has a long and fond association with the Christmas, its shiny green leaves and bright red berries playing right into the traditional holiday color scheme.

After the Christmas tree and garland come down, holly keeps on giving real value in the winter landscape. Its bright berries generally persist until late winter, when they become palatable to wildlife. In the heart of winter, when the view from the window can be dreary, the glossy, broadleafed foliage of hollies catches the pale winter light with a sparkle and gleam that dull needle-leafed foliage cannot match.

Given the diversity in the genus Ilex (pronounced eye-lex), it may take you from now until spring to sort through the choices and settle on a specific variety to plant. Among 700 species worldwide there are prickly types and smooth-leafed kinds, soaring trees and dwarf rock garden specimens, tiny-leafed hollies resembling boxwood and species that atypically lose their leaves in winter. Showy berries can be red, orange, yellow and even ivory.

In human history, there is scarcely a culture that didn’t use or admire holly. The Romans exchanged holly wreaths during their winter solstice celebration, Saturnalia, and the Chinese favored their native species for New Year’s decorations. South American Indians brewed from holly a tea-like beverage, yerba maté, and northern Native Americans believed spiny holly leaves symbolized the fierceness of their warriors, who painted holly emblems on their shields.

It is more specifically from the British Isles that Americans take their holly lore. The Druids believed that as long as the sacred holly remained green, the earth would be beautiful -- they wore holly sprigs in their hair (ouch!) for solstice celebrations. Later Britons believed that forest fairies sheltered from winter’s cold among holly’s dense branches and decked their halls with boughs of holly as protection against evil spirits.

English holly (Ilex aquifolium), a symbol of good will, was associated with the Christmas season as early as the 1500s, according to written records. This is a handsome species, often variegated, with shiny leaves and brilliant red berries.

British settlers in the New World must have been delighted to discover the American equivalent, Ilex opaca, growing along the coast near their early settlements. But even though it was winter hardy — thriving where English holly could not — the wild American version was less favored than the European because its leaves were duller and lighter in color, its form more open and rangy, and its berries less prolific.

The aim of modern breeding programs was to make the American holly more like the English without impairing its hardy constitution. But before serious hybridization could begin, holly fans already had grown concerned about native stocks, depleted in an unregulated holiday cottage industry that marketed holly branches cut in the wild.

Variegated English holly                      Brian Pettinger/Flickr

Variegated English holly                      Brian Pettinger/Flickr

Here’s where the story begins to focus more tightly on New Jersey. In 1926, Clarence Wolf, owner of the New Jersey Silica Sand Company in Millville, began sending holly cuttings to clients and friends. Twelve years later, when wild stocks had begun to peter out, he planted a 55-acre holly orchard with some 41,000 trees, mostly transplanted from local swamps and forests.

Dan Fenton took over the holly farm and, in 1947, helped form the Holly Society of America in Millville with Wolf and Elizabeth White, a woman otherwise known for introducing the nation’s first cultivated blueberry. These founders also conspired to have Millville officially named America’s “Holly City.” Cuttings from the Wolf and White holly collections were planted at the Rutgers Gardens in New Brunswick, which was the largest accumulation of American hollies in the eastern United States for decades until superseded by the Bernheim Arboretum in Kentucky.

The Rutgers Gardens are still a good place to get an idea of how impressive a mature American holly can be. And nothing could be better than tramping through the holly grove with the unassuming and professorial Elwin Orton, a Rutgers University researcher who has galvanized modern holly breeding since his arrival on campus in the 1960s.

“You start with the best genetic material you can get and go through thousands of seedlings, discarding maybe 98 to 99 percent of them,” Orton once said, describing the laborious mechanics of hybridization. “It can take 15, 20 years — sometimes more — to grow them out, make selections and come up with something commercially interesting.”

But he’s been extraordinarily good at it. Orton’s first introduction in the 1970s, ‘Jersey Princess,’ was an upright, conical tree bred for darker leaf color and heavy berry set. Following it into the market were ‘Dan Fenton,’ a profuse fruiter; ‘Jersey Gold’ with yellow berries; ‘Jersey Knight,’ a male pollinator; and entire series of dwarf clones suitable for rock gardens (‘Jersey Jewel,’ ‘Jersey Midget,’ ‘Jersey Sprite’).

The breeding program became more cosmopolitan as crosses were made with English, Chinese and Japanese species. Orton improved on the box-like Japanese hollies with ‘Beehive,’ a dense, compact, mounded specimen. In the deciduous group, his program produced the first cross between native and Asian winterberry species, a heavy berry producer known as ‘Harvest Red,’ followed by the equally gorgeous ‘Autumn Glow.’ And the hits just kept on coming.

Orton, now retired, gave the genus the better part of 45 years of close attention. Few individuals have played a more critical role in improving the hollies available in trade, where today you’ll find more than 1,000 cultivars of our humble native species.

Holly is also a favorite of wildlife, by the way — in May and June, the bees work the blossoms, and in late winter, robins, cedar waxwings, wild turkey and 15 other bird species take the fruit, often in a short, frantic feast. Be warned: The berries and foliage are eaten by deer, too. American holly is the least palatable, while Chinese and Japanese varieties are more readily chomped.

Plant some holly and you can have your own source of jolly holiday cuttings. But more, you’ll have a plant that’s beautiful all year long.