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Mike's Gardening Index


Gardening With Attitude
By Mike Clark

Holly Comes Out at Christmas!

The problem we have determining the sexes of our hollies goes way beyond the genus Ilex. (qv Holly Aird; Holly Johnson.)

I can legitimately use sex as an introduction to the holly.  If you think itís just a headline-grabber, read on and I will justify.

So many people come to me with the question, ďWhy does my holly never produce berries?Ē. And the answer is sex. There are male hollies and female hollies. Male hollies produce flowers with pollen, with the potential to fertilise female hollies. (Sorry if Iím being too graphic. Gets a bit close to the bone sometimes, this gardening/nature thing.). Female hollies also produce flowers, with the potential to be fertilised by the pollen from male hollies. You know whatís coming next, donít you?

If you want berries, you need two hollies, a male and a female, and preferably a few obliging insects to do the dirty deed. But as we all know, insects cover a lot of ground. Like, they will cover the ground between you and your neighbour. So if you have a town garden, the chances are someone elseís holly will fertilise yours. If itís female. Otherwise you will always be the provider.

Simple so far? Now it gets better. How do you know if your holly is male or female? With the common holly (Ilex aquifolium), you donít. Botanists with microscopes and cutting edge technology struggle. Until the plant is old enough to bear flowers and/or fruits. But thatís a bit late to be finding out. If you want to go for the common holly - which I strongly recommend because itís native, and therefore of much more use to numerous wee beasties - buy half a dozen or so. Címon, theyíre not that expensive (and if they are youíre shopping at the wrong place!), and if you plant several together, by the law of averages youíll get a mix of sexes.

If you want to be sure, though, you can buy named variegated varieties. BUT - if Iíve confused you so far, prepare to be bamboozled. A reliable female holly is the variety ďGolden KingĒ. A reliable male holly is the variety ďSilver QueenĒ. Just donít ask, okay? Trust, accept.

But help is at hand. For we have on the market a hermaphrodite (and not in any way genetically modified, I assure you). If you have room for only one holly, look in your Garden Centre for Ilex aquifolium Pyramidalis. This is an upright pyramid-shaped shrub, and in my experience it bears berries very early in life, even when itís still in the pot on the Garden Centre shelf. It needs no pollinator. It does the business by itself.

PS Before anyone else corrects me, let me correct myself. Iíve just checked my RHS plant bible, and itís not a hermaphrodite at all. It is a female. But self fertile. This worries me - it could catch on. Please donít tell the Dolly-the-sheep doctor.

© Mike Clark 2002.

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