THERE MAY be a prejudice against the deciduous hollies that lose their leaves in November, and admittedly their foliage is as deplorable and dull as that of a cherry, lilac, mock orange, phlox, rose, plum, etc.
The point, which I imagine you get perfectly well, is that many esteemed plants have ordinary foliage of no special merit. And while the gardener should always have his eye open for leaves that are ornamental in themselves, even when the plant is not in flower or fruit, he does have to make allowances for the often pedestrian designs of Nature and make the most of an imperfect cornucopia.
When I was younger I once worked on a farm for the better part of a happy and hungry year, and I remember one great thicket of several acres in a low-lying rich bottom land.
It had a lot of twiggy monotonous bushes in it and then there was a hard freeze in November and off the leaves came (without much change in color) and the bushes were almost solid with scarlet berries against the gray stems. I have never seen anything more beautiful.
This was Ilex decidua, a plant rarely grown in gardens.
And I looked about gardens and thought of their lack of winter color -- nandinas and firethorns were the main things -- and wondered why nobody planted this native shrub.
Quite similar is the winterberry, Ilex verticillata, in fact the casual gardener cannot tell these deciduous hollies apart, and I. verticillata is the one I would plant here.
It can be grown either as a small tree, like a smallish dogwood, or as a shrub of several stems, the size of a lilac bush. Its leaves are lance-shaped, of no interest whatever (except to the winterberry which of course requires them to live) and strings of scarlet fruit all along the branches, at their best in November-December.
Like almost everything it prefers full sun, but will endure the dappled and half-woodland shade of the average town garden.
It is best planted in the spring -- late March or early April -- in ordinary soil improved by a good bit of peat moss and leaf mould, and watered in dry spells the first two summers.
Only the pistillate flowers produce fruit, so pains should be taken to acquire a female plant. The staminate flowers, borne on male plants, set no fruit but are necessary to pollinate the female flowers. I strongly object to giving space to a male deciduous holly, and would try the female plant alone to see what happens. If it does not set fruit, there is nothing else to do but acquire a male, but I would always hope there was a male in the neighborhood and that the bees would tend to a good setting of berries.
This holly is so beautiful in fruit that it is worthy of a place, say along the front walk to the house, all by itself. If there are evergreen hollies, mahonias, yews, junipers, etc., in the distant background, so much the better.
A background of evergreens 15 or 30 feet off the winterberry will throw its berried branches into high relief.
It is a great plant to site 20 feet outside a favorite window, preferably to one side. When in fruit it is conspicuous enough to draw any eye to it, and when covered with its routine dull leaves it will not take all the spotlight, if planted rather to the side of the view from the window. Because of its routine foliage, the rest of the picture from the window should consist of plants that do have fine foliage and smart appearance.
Thus the gardener has the best of both worlds, or at least comes to a quite satisfactory compromise: putting up with an undistinguished shurb for the sake of its unparalleled brilliance in late fall and winter, when so few other plants are at their best.
Whenever we give a plant a prominent position, our first thought should be whether it is very beautiful in all seasons -- like the dogwood, certain willows, certain small maples, viburnums, evergreens.
If it is not beautiful all the time, then we should ask if it is supremely beautiful at some season of the year. Like the winterberry.
Lilacs and mock oranges, for example, are pleasant enough in bloom, but they bloom when everything else is in bloom, and we need not give them gold stars, therefore.
They are handsome and desirable flowering shrubs, but hardly worth a showcase position.
I have suggested the winterberry for spotlight attention outside a favorite window. Other deciduous shrubs or small trees equally worthwhile are the dogwood, sourwood, Virginia fringe (one of the most beautiful of all plants, shamefully neglected because it is an American native), the Washington thorn, the star magnolia, the Venetian sumac (another American), Blirey's plum, the Sargent crab apple, Judd's viburnum, the hybrid Scotch laburnum, crape myrtle, various small mountain ashes, such a rose as 'Mermaid' or 'Dortmund' grown as a great bush, and so on.
Some of these have such an allround excellence and distinction (the Sargent crab, the dogwood, the crape myrtle, the viburnum, for example) as to be unarguable.
Others, like the laburnum, are so showy and astonishing in bloom, that even though the blooming season is short, they deserve high marks. Especially if, like the laburnum, the foliage is rather handsome and the bark is distinctive.
Blirey's plum has the fault of ordinary plum leaves, except they are reddish purple, and any lack of distinction is atoned for when it covers itself with soft but definite pink flowers in late March, before most other plants have thought of flowering.
In the small town garden there really is not space for shrubs and small trees that are okay, sort of. They have to be better than that. They have to have at least one season of supreme (not merely moderate) beauty. And preferably they should have all manner of side virtues like bark, fall color, fruit.
At Dumbarton Oaks garden there is a mass planting of forsythia which has been endlessly admired, and there is nothing wrong with it when you are trying to fill up space over some acres. But I have always thought it a singular example of rather dumb landscaping, like a joke that does not improve by going on and on and on with it.
Hollies are wonderfully enhanced by mass plantings of them, but forsythias are not. But then every gardener to his own taste.
No forsythia is worth a spotlight position -- they are bright enough to make their own spotlight when they bloom -- and usually it works out best to stick the forsythia out in left field, along an alley, perhaps, where it brightens the early spring and can be ignored the rest of the year. The variety 'Spring Glory' is a softer, more lemony yellow than 'Lynwood' or 'Spectabilis' or 'Beatrix Farrand.' Most forsythias tend toward mustard. None of them has handsome foliage, fall fruit, handsome bark, splendid autumn leaves or strikingly beautiful branching structure. We would certainly not want to be without them in their brief season, but if breeders would stop worrying about bigger flowers and more yellow, and went to work on the cruddy foliage, it would raise the rank of the forsythia among shrubs.