Uncommon hollies

Try a non-traditional variety for something different

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Holly is a festive favourite, with richly-berried sprigs adorning Christmas wreaths and place settings throughout the land. But there’s much more to holly than our native Ilex aquifolium.

There are more than 30 species and hybrids that can be grown in British gardens, and around 150 varieties listed by nurseries. Even our native holly has more than 60 varieties, spanning variegated and coloured-leaf forms.

Hollies are accommodating and generally easy to grow in most moist, well-drained soils. Preferring sun, they also tolerate semi-shade, but won’t fruit as productively. Although some eventually become large, they’re slow-growing when young and can be clipped or trained to size.

The main issue is the majority of holly species and hybrids are dioecious, with separate male and female parts. So to produce berries you need a compatible male plant to fertilise a number of female forms or hybrids, using the native species. If a male plant is already fairly close you won’t need to plant one, but it’s a common problem why a holly won’t fruit. Another issue is that a few varieties have confusing names. Ilex altaclerensis ‘Golden King’ is, in fact, female while I. aquifolium ‘Golden Queen’ and I. aquifolium ‘Silver Queen’ are male! A few such as I. aquifolium ‘J.C. van Tol’ are reasonably self-fertile, but always check the sex of your holly before you buy.