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Ilex & hedera: year-round festivity

Ilex & hedera: year-round festivity

I. x aquifolium ‘Rubricaulis Aurea\'. Photo: Christopher Bailes

With wonderful foliage colours and luscious berries, holly and ivy should be in every garden, says Sarah Morgan.

Holly and ivy are ubiquitous in Britain and heralds of seasonal cheer, but they are little used by garden designers and not much planted by gardeners these days. It’s time to take a second look at both of these winter stalwarts for the evergreen interest they offer once mature, as well as the benefits they offer to wildlife.

Hollies have a bad rap for being slow growing, which may be why British designers and gardeners are not using them much. Yet you can get 30cm growth a year out of the fastest ones, and when everything in the landscape looks bare, hollies have a healthy vitality that alone can carry a garden through winter.

Another reason to reconsider Ilex is the fact that our beloved box topiary is in trouble, and by now most designers have seen the mess box blight makes.

“There’s a lot more to hollies than meets the eye, and it’s a pity they’ve slipped out of fashion,” says Christopher Bailes, former curator of RHS Rosemoor (which holds the national collection of Ilex). “Hollies are as bright and attractive as other evergreens, but have an extra quality – they retain their natural pyramidal shape, requiring relatively little clipping or pruning, unlike many evergreens which are rampant growers.”

As well as looking good, ivies produce the last nectar and pollen source in autumn, and scientists have found that bees rely on it, as it is of such high quality. You have to wait a few years for most ivies to produce their attractive yellowish-green flowers, but it is worth it, as they will attract all manner of late-flying insects. The black berries that follow are also a joy for the nature-lover as thrushes and blackbirds flock to them. 

I. x koehneana ‘Chestnut Leaf. Photo: RHS Sheila Dearing

Top hollies

I. x aquifolium ‘Rubricaulis Aurea’

One of Christopher Bailes’s favourites, as he says it has a quality of brightness to its foliage and deep purple stems that really set off the leaves and red berries.

I. x koehneana ‘Chestnut Leaf’ AGM

Another of Christopher’s favourites, for the “downswept branches that beautifully present the foliage and fruit”. It is also the largest-leaved (15cm long) berrying evergreen we can grow in Britain.

I. x aquifolium ‘Watereriana’

A virtually spineless male holly, with small 3-4cm leaves and a dense habit. It’s a very tidy plant and one of the best for hedges or topiary.

I. crenata

If you walked into a garden with I. crenata ‘Dark Green’ AGM hedging you wouldn’t immediately know it wasn’t box. ‘Convexa’ AGM is also good for hedges of 60cm and above. For a lower hedge, go for ‘Helleri’.

I. x aquifolium ‘Alaska’

Good for smaller gardens. Conical in shape with dense, glossy, dark-green, spiny leaves and fine fruits. It clips well and you can also grow it in containers.

H. helix ‘Glacier’ AGM. Photo: Sarah Morgan

Top ivies

1. H. helix ‘Glacier’ AGM  

Some of the best tonal leaf colours are found on ivies and this all-rounder has cool-greyish tones that have a painterly elegance.

2. H. helix ‘Buttercup’ AGM 

Ivy is traditionally a shade plant, but if you grow the yellow ones they need a bit more light or you’ll lose colour. This old favourite really sings in winter.

3. H. colchica 

The largest leaved of the genus and the quickest for covering walls or the ground. It doesn’t produce the roots H. helix does, so it needs a bit of support when climbing. When mature, it also produces flowers for that invaluable late-season nectar.

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