Happy Holly Days
From small-scale shrubs to large trees, these plants benefit landscapes and backyard birds alike.
By Kris Wetherbee, Oakland, Oregon
Anytime I can accomplish two things at once, it brightens my day.
One way to do this in your garden is to include plants that bring in more birds by offering most of the essentials they need for survival. Hollies do that and more.
With over 400 species of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs, hollies (Ilex species) are one of the most valuable and versatile resources in any backyard bird garden. For starters, most are evergreen and therefore serve as excellent shelter sites, especially in winter when other deciduous plants are left leafless and barren.
Hollies range in size from trees that tower up to 100 feet tall to creeping shrubs less than 1 foot in height, providing a range of options to suit different species of birds. The evergreen canopy is without a doubt an attraction, but many birds also build nests in the densely covered branches.
Hollies have the additional bonus of rewarding both birds and people with brightly colored berries. Red, yellow, orange, white or black berries ripen in fall and, in some species, last until early spring.
The berries not only enliven the wintry scene, but the nutritious fruit also is consumed by a variety of songbirds, including northern cardinals, waxwings, jays, northern mockingbirds, American robins, chickadees and woodpeckers.
Hollies in the Landscape
Hollies hold a lot of appeal for birds, but another asset lies in the ornamental beauty they bring to the landscape. The versatility in style, range of heights, diversity of form and long-lasting berry display make hollies a must-have for any garden.
Hollies can be rounded, spherical, pyramidal or columnar in form. Leaf shape and size run the gamut, too—from smooth to spiny, narrow to broad, and quite tiny to rather large. Most are dark green to glossy green in color, but blue types exist and variegated forms are quite striking.
The low, smooth-leaved Japanese species (Ilex crenata) works well to line a path, or try a taller evergreen variety as a backdrop to beds and borders. Columnar varieties like 'Sky Pencil' can serve as sculptural points of interest, especially in areas where you wish to draw attention.
Hollies also make an effective foil for other colors. For example, the lustrous Meserve or "blue" hollies (Ilex x meserveae) feature blue-green leaves that heighten the beauty of plants with yellow or pink flowers.
Most hollies thrive in Zones 5 to 9, with some even growing to Zone 4. Holly plants are either male or female, with the female plants producing fruit as long as a male plant of the same species is growing nearby.
Many of the Chinese hollies (Ilex cornuta) are partially self-fruitful and will produce some berries without a male variety. In most areas, hollies produce the best berry crops when planted in full sun, but many adapt well to partial shade, especially where summers are hot.
Most hollies grow best in well-drained, slightly acid soil enriched with organic matter. Regular fertilization based upon soil test results helps keep foliage healthy and fruit abundant. I also find that a thick mulch of pine needles or other woody material applied each year helps maintain the soil's acidity and keep roots cool and moist.
Few plants rival the attraction that hollies bring to birds and the landscape. Hollies may be the classic symbol of the winter season, but they also offer a multitude of benefits for both birds and people year-round.