As winter makes its presence felt, there can be no cheerier sight in the garden than a berry-laden Ilex. Commonly known as English holly, most Ilex are derived from our native Ilex aquifolium and its hybrid I. x altaclerensi. They can be deciduous or evergreen, shrubs or trees. With glossy, often spiny leaves, they produce brightly coloured berries in winter and white flowers in spring beloved by bees and butterflies. The iconic prickly leaves will give year round pleasure with vivid new growth in spring and summer. Most varieties sport glossy green leaves but there are lots of different cultivars with more colourful foliage.
Ilex are dioecious, meaning they require both male and female plants for pollination to occur. Plant both types to ensure a profusion of berries on female plants in winter. In general one male plant will pollinate multiple females. Do not be fooled by plant names when it comes to choosing the sexes of plants, Ilex aquifolium ‘Silver Queen’ (m/v) is actually male and Ilex × altaclerensis ‘Golden King’ (f/v) is a female berry-bearing variety. If you want berries and only have room for one plant then consider self-fertile Ilex aquifolium ‘J.C. van Tol’ (f).
The merits of Ilex are numerous. Not only attractive in appearance and to wildlife, they have practical applications too. Their shapely, architectural form make them ideal stand-alone features which provide welcome structure within the garden and with thick, spiny foliage they form excellent dense and secure boundary hedges. There is even a variety, Ilex crenata Dark Green (box-leaved holly), particularly suited to being clipped into formal shapes and topiary, offering an excellent alternative to Buxus sempervirens (common box).
Ilex are hardy, slow-growing and offer good resistance to pests and diseases. They will perform best if planted in full or partial shade, in moist but well drained soil. Propogate by seed or semi-hardwood cuttings in autumn. With its many different attributes Ilex will enhance any garden and lift any spirit and is surely a ‘must have’ in the winter garden.