There is an idea in horticulture that the strategy for aging with your garden is to rip out all those perennials and annuals and replace them with low-maintenance shrubs.
I am thinking of this as I struggle to load a shrub the weight of an overfed spaniel into a wheelbarrow — actually four of the bushes — for a rendezvous with a new home at the top of a steep hill. The knees are creaking, the spine doth protest.
But I can forgive the shrubs their demands because they will look after themselves in the years to come and, moreover, because they are a variety of deciduous holly named Sparkleberry. This lovely plant confuses folks who think a holly is a tall, prickly evergreen that carolers encircle this time of year. There are others — I have met them — who think a holly or a mistletoe is a disembodied sprig that merely materializes for a moment of festive ornament. Such people deserve our sympathy, not condemnation.
Nature has given us 400 species of holly, and plant hybridizers have brought us many more in the form of cultivated varieties. Some of these hollies drop their leaves this time of year. The nakedness is offset with displays of fruit. Perhaps the best of them, the Sparkleberry variety, was created at the National Arboretum by crossing two shrubs from opposite sides of the world: our native winterberry holly with the Japanese version.
The hybrid is more than the sum of its parts. Once its simple leaves turn gold and drop, the shrub is a handsome tangle of gray bark blinged with big, red berries. The birds get to them eventually, but the berries should last through the winter. Three planted eight feet apart will eventually grow into a clump about eight to 10 feet high and form thousands of berries. In addition to Sparkleberry, other varieties are in the nursery trade, including Autumn Glow, Bonfire and, at six feet the smallest of the bunch, Harvest Red. Each will need a male pollinator, such as Apollo or Raritan Chief.
If you want to stick strictly to the native winterberry over Sparkleberry, you could plant the species (Ilex verticillata) or its showier varieties, the best of which is Winter Red.
Grace Chapman, director of horticulture at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, particularly likes a yellow form of this one, called Winter Gold. The overall mass of the winterberries can be reduced for smaller gardens by removing the oldest canes at winter’s end, she said.
Without this regimen, though, or the use of dwarf varieties, the winterberries are hollies for large areas rather than the urban yard. If you have the room, what a way to set off a bed at the far end of a lawn. The beauty of its red fruit is amplified if you can place the shrub in front of some dark evergreens, spruces, yews, Southern magnolias or evergreen hollies such as the large, under-used and handsome Koehne holly. Wait for a dusting of snow and call Currier and Ives.
Sparkleberry and its ilk fruit best in a sunny location and are particularly happy in soil that stays moist. When you see a spectacular stand at this time of year, you yearn to own a soggy, low-lying field, where you could also plant masses of shrub willows, lobelias, mountain mint and swamp hibiscus.
In such a place, you could also plant a native wetland holly seen more frequently in Southern gardens. The yaupon holly, used to make a type of tea by American Indians, is evergreen. You could use a few as a screen in an area where nothing else will grow, reaching 12 feet or more. It can take drought, flood and heat. Its fine-textured foliage and ability to accept shearing lifts it from the swamp to the formal garden. You can trim it annually to keep it tidy (in late winter to preserve the fall berry display) or more frequently if you need it strictly for architectural purposes. In Colonial Williamsburg, the gardeners clip it up to five times a year to keep it crisp and dense.
Unlike the genteel English box, you can shear right through the leaves of yaupon holly because the new growth is so vigorous it soon hides any ugly cutting. “It’s just very healthy for us,” said Laura Viancour, Colonial Williamsburg’s landscape manager.
The yaupon holly would make a great privacy hedge for a patio, but so too would a holly lookalike named osmanthus. Some species are marginally hardy here, but the holly tea olive (Osmanthus heterophyllus) is a reliable evergreen that will get to between eight and 10 feet after a decade. In fall, it produces tiny white flowers in the leaf joints that are intensely sweet. No one can tell where the perfume is coming from, but it is powerful and magnificent in October and November. “It’s just a fantastic scent,” Chapman said. “It doesn’t say fall to me. It smells more like spring or summer.”
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