THIS IS the time of year the gardener can see that the holly is the most beautiful of all evergreen trees.
Sometimes I like to imagine there were no hollies at all in gardens, and to imagine that we all then went to some great flower show and saw, for the first time, such plants as the America, the English, the Chinese hollies, and the yaupon and cassine and Pern's holly and the bradoleaf (Ilex latifolia ) and so on.
Any gardener would drool. Any gardener would feel that curious racing feeling, a panic of covetousness that is not very lofty or commendable in us, but which all gardeners save angels commonly feel when they "discover" some glorious plant.
We would assume, seeing hollies for the first time, that we could not grow them outdoors in our gardens -- they are clearly among those plants too good to be true.
And yet, in reality, any gardener in Washington can grow dozens of kinds of hollies without the least bother. It is because they are common that we are so blind to their merits.
Not really blind. After all, they are common, so we really have not ignored them. And yet your average gardener rarely thinks of them.
He is off on clouds somewhere devising strategems to manage evergreen oaks from Burma in his garden, and his desire is all toward the Mediterranean myrtle or the desfontainea or the benthamia or the embothrium or any of the other thousand treasures that cannot quite be managed in a mid-Atlantic garden.
And yet, among those treasures, I can think of none that is quite so beautiful as the common hollies.
I once had a friend, in our same climatic zone (No. 7) who went quite out of her head on the matter of hollies. She cleared a lot of treasures and planted her place solid -- almost solid -- with hollies.
That was going a bit far. I do not think our gardens gain from being solid with hollies and nothing else. But if you are going to go berserk, then I think hollies are as reasonable a plant to be unbalanced about as any other. i
Recently I was seduced by two hollies, 'Blue Princess' and 'Blue Angel,' which have smallish blue-green-wine-black leaves on dark purple stems and bright red berries.
In earlier years I have been successively seduced by I. pernyii , with [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]twisted dark spiny leaves, and by the yellow-berry form of the native myrtle-leaf holly, and by the great large untoothed leaves of I. latifolia , whose berries last so long, and by variegated English hollies and camellia-leaf hollies and many more.
Once I was driving on a country road in the lower Mississippi valley and saw some dark trees on the horizon and pulled off to have a closer look.
It was a grove of the ordinary wild American holly, maybe 85 old trees that had evidently been planted around a farmhouse that was no longer there.
It was a day in December, not especially cold but damp and raw with a bit of wind. The field were bleak, the cotton stalks bare and ugly, the earth bare and hostile.
I walkded into the grove that was very like a dream. The grass was green, the air was still, and whenever I think of "mildness" I think of that grove. Many of the trees were in fruit, but many were staminate forms that do not set berries (though the gardener learns eventually that some of the male hollies are even more beautiful plants than those that bear fruit).
Now one of the great effects aimed for in great gardens (and in our piddling ones, too) is calmness, peace, nobility.
We do not want neon there, nor boom-boom wow . We want space enclosed in a way I cannot explain, and we want a serenity that is not oppressive but cheerful and delightful. Sometimes at the Freer Gallery (which has more beautiful works of art in it than any other gallery in Washington, I reckon) you see that same kind of serenity in the room with the Chinese stone sculptures. Or you may see the same serenity in a fine hound sound asleep on the wooden porch of a country store.
In both cases the great effect of monumental repose depends on the strength of skeleton and muscle. Relaxed, at rest, but there. The beautiful surface of the stone (or the fur, if you are back with the hound) contrasts with the raw power beneath the skin, but seem reasonable all the same.
So the holly grove, quiet for all the many variations of leaf and berry (hollies vary in a most wonderful way in small details) gives the effect of great power at rest.
You might think it would be monotonous, a grove of only wild hollies.
Sometimes a gardener is struck by the seeming ease with which the grandest and most profound effects possible in gardening are produced by something childishly simple, such as the 85 holly trees with only grass beneath them and only sky above.
But the truth is it took a century for the grove to reach that state --it would have looked silly enough when the trees were 10 years old -- and the old trees were spaced just right, at various distances. As gardens go, it is one of the few supreme examples of beauty I have ever seen.
Just here let me say I was informed once that some yo-yo or other called the planting of forsythia at Dumbarton Oaks the most beautiful example of gardening in America.
The mind balks at the thought. The forsythia is a distinctly third-rate shrub, as far as beauty is concerned, and its main fault is its screaming blatancy. The whole theme of a forsythia is to jam as many yellow bells as possible on stems that have no architecture. That is not a fatal flaw, but a serious one.
A true gardener, or a competent designer, will acknowledge the forsythia is loaded with flamboyant color early in the year when we are starved for color, and will not despise the shrub merely because it is third-rate and gaudy and lacking in subtlety, elegance, etc.
He will take the neon forsythia and contrast it with bare beech boles and somber wild juniper and black water of a pool and maybe a bit of acid lime-yellow. He may do a lot of things with the forsythia, keeping in mind its lack of beauty for 50 weeks of the year, and keeping in mind that it rather overdoes the production of hot yellow flowers.
But only the most callous fool would mass the fosythia in hundreds of thousands of bushes, thereby emphasizing its worst fault of gaudiness without style, flamboyance without tension, luxury without structure, extravagance without meaning.
That particular planting at Dumbarton may please tots, but hardly pleases a gardener. It is a good example of triteness in gardening, and a fine example of dullness in imagination and coarseness in judgement.
Out of deference to whomever it was that went made in designing and executing that planting of forsythia, I modestly refrain from viewing it in the spring, as I also turn my eyes from blood on the highway, knowing that awful things can happen but seeing no special need to gaze at them.
I mention this to suggest I am not automatically pleased by the endless repetition of some plant in a garden. There has to be some sense to it. It has to work.
The forsythia does not work, the holly grove did.
The mass planting of fosythias gives no serenity, no sense of awe, or peace or rightness, but the grove did produce those effects.
One of the great ends of gardening is to revolt at plants used unimaginatively, heartlessly, as if they were paint on a warehouse wall. A lesser aim (but one not to be sneezed at) is to discover that sometimes a mass planting of only one thing can be superlatively right, however, daring or austere it may seem on paper.
And to know which is which.
The dogwoods, you will notice, have set hardly any flower buds this year and gardeners are therefore entitled to start muttering and grumbling right now about the shortage of dogwood flowers we will see next April.
Last year the dogwoods bloomed more heavily than I ever knew them to before, and clearly they are taking a year off to replenish the vital juices. Reasonable, of course, and like many reasonable things, utterly exasperating.