Liberty is one of several varieties of holly sold as Red Hollies and favored for their upright and narrow growth habit. (Plant Development Services)
Gardening columnist

Landscapers call them corner plantings, those perfect evergreen pyramids that are used to blur the edges of the house. They are useful, too, for screening between neighbors.

For years in this region, gardeners have turned to a pair of hollies to fulfill this role. The first is the Foster holly, or more correctly, Foster’s No. 2. It is a hybrid first raised in the 1940s as the offspring of the familiar American holly and the lesser-known swamp holly of the South, the dahoon holly.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

It was valued for its narrow growth habit, abundant red berries, and deep green and not-so-spiny leaves. The Foster holly has fallen from favor because it outgrows its allotted role — to 30 feet or more — and doesn’t always get through a winter unscathed. A bad winter might be a setback for a homeowner; for a grower raising hundreds of bread-and-butter evergreens in a field, it would be a disaster.

“The foliage turns black every third winter,” said John Rich of Olney Gardens, a wholesale nursery in suburban Maryland. “It maybe doesn’t kill them, but it sets them way back.”

The other, more enduring holly is a variety named Nellie R. Stevens. The hybrid counts the Chinese and English hollies as its parents. It is still widely planted and cherished for its dark, glossy green leaves and abundant fruit, but it too gets larger than many anticipate, above 20 feet.

Nipping at its heels is a bunch of new hollies — as many as 10 or so varieties under the apt rubric of Red Hollies — that have become favored by growers and landscapers alike. For the growers, they are more willing than other hollies to maintain a single, dominant growing tip and endure the rigors of an early life in a container.

For landscape architects, designers and contractors, they are the ideal evergreen for use around buildings: They grow quickly, stay relatively small, form obedient, tightly clustered pyramids, grow in sun or partial shade, and set decorative fruit (some better than others). They also look handsome, with dense, vital foliage that emerges reddish in spring, hence their name.

Among the Red Hollies, Rich sells to landscape contractors a lot of Oak Leaf, a bright emerald green pyramid with sort of oaklike leaves. It grows to 14 feet high and about eight feet wide.

Katia Goffin, a landscape designer in Northern Virginia, says she likes to use Oak Leaf singly as an architectural plant or “a threesome” to blur a corner or create a screen. “I think they’re phenomenal,” she said. A near identical version of it is called Oakland.

Another variety, Robin, is larger, growing to 20 feet, with dark green foliage and a heavy berry set. Liberty grows to 12 feet high and eight feet wide and is favored for its dark green leaves, which are conspicuously serrated.

Patriot is another popular smaller variety, with dark green leaves and a good berry show. Acadiana has deep, dense, glossy green leaves and a good display of berries.

The Red Hollies were selected by a Mississippi nurseryman named Mitch Magee from seedlings he obtained from Tom Dodd Jr., a well-known holly grower and breeder in Semmes, Ala.

In the 1960s, Dodd and another hybridizer, Joe McDaniel, bred a holly named Mary Nell that became, and still is, a popular landscape plant, valued for its glossy deep green leaves and abundance of berries. It grows as a pyramid to 20 feet.

The Red Hollies derive from berries collected by Dodd from his Mary Nell hollies. They were pollinated by insects, adding to their genetic stew and diversity.

Magee grew about 60 of the resulting seedlings at his Evergreen Nursery in Poplarville, Miss., and evaluated them. “You had to wait three or four years before you could figure out whether they were male or female,” he told me. Only female hollies set berries, usually only with a male plant in the vicinity, though many of the Red Holly varieties don’t need a male to set fruit.

A few varieties haven’t developed the commercial traction of others. Festive “was a really good one, but sticky,” said Magee, referring to its leaf prickles.

For now, at least, the Red Hollies are ascendant and worth seeking out if you live in the Mid-Atlantic and points south. They are better known in the landscape trade than among ranks of homeowners, though I’m sure that will change. It is the way of highly popular plants that something comes along to undo them: They either are painfully overused or develop some unforeseen problem, or both. The redtip photinia and Bradford pear come to mind.

The quintessential holly sprig of the season comes from the English holly, perhaps a variegated form with yellow- or white-edged leaves. Alas this beautiful evergreen seems to struggle in our harsh climate, and if it did thrive, it would get too big for most domestic properties, as does the duller American holly. If you have the room, plant a Koehne holly, which grows to a fine large pyramid, 30 feet tall or more. It is richly arrayed with deep green foliage and, in a female such as Agena, bejeweled with scarlet red fruit. I’ve been pushing it for years but about as effectively as a coyote sings to the moon.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

Also at washingtonpost.com
Read past columns by Higgins at washingtonpost.com/home.

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