Ilex cornuta, the Chinese Holly, is one of the old reliables of southeastern landscapes. This incredibly heat tolerant, Asian broadleaved evergreen can be relied upon to stand up to the toughest conditions, from urban deserts to soils that should really be made into bricks. Chinese Holly has been used as the heat tolerant parent in hybridization programs to create heat tolerant cultivars like 'Nellie R. Stevens' and the two relatively heat tolerant 'blue' hollies, 'China Girl' and 'China Boy' that all carry the more handsome habits and foliar character of their non-heat-tolerant parents. This is because, in appearance, the Chinese Holly species itself is a coarse holly with severely dangerous, long-tipped spines on exceptionally stiff foliage (anyone who has ever planted a hedge of Chinese Holly is never quite the same and definitely deserves a Purple Heart medal).
Cultivars of Chinese Holly have also been selected to minimize the spiny character and maximize other desirable traits like dark green foliar color and heavy fruiting with bright colored berries. One of the most commonly used cultivars of Chinese Holly is 'Burfordii', the Burford Holly. This selection was found in a cemetary in Atlanta and propagated for its nearly spineless foliage (only one shortened, semi-lethal spine usually tips each leaf) and heavy fruiting. It is a full size cultiar vreaching 25 feet with age and makes a handsome tree, especially if limbed up. Its relatively more compact cousin, 'Burfordii Nana', the Dwarf Burford, can be found, it seems, in 90% of all commercial landscapes in the south and is usually seen at heights of 6 to 10 feet. While both forms of Burford Holly are serviceable and handsome plants, tough landscapes cannot live by Burfords alone.
Two alternatives which fill a similar landscape niche to 'Burfordii', but bring more striking color to the garden, are 'D'or' and 'O'Spring' Chinese Holly - two other cultivars of the same plant with their own unique characters. 'D'or' orginated as a sport (branch mutation) of 'Burfordii'. It is almost identical to its parent in most respects with dark, black-green, highly glossy foliage (tipped with only one, reduced spine), a densely rounded habit, excellent heat tolerance, general landscape adaptability, and good fruitfulness. The exciting difference is that 'D'or' bears bright golden berries while 'Burfordii' has the standard scarlet. The yellow gold fruit of 'D'or' gleam delightfully in the winter landscape, complementing other yellow elements like the branches of Yellow Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea') and golden foliaged conifers. 'D'or's branches full of golden berries make excellent accents for holiday decorations, both indoors and out.
'O'Spring' goes even further with a golden show as its foliage is beautifully variegated with cream and gold to a very flashy degree. The foliage looks as if it has been tie-dyed with light yellow, cream, and bright gold, with almost no green left showing. New foliage emerges tinged with burgundy but soon loses that character. It grows very densely in an irregularly pyramidal shape. 'O'Spring' is one of the showiest hollies well adapted to the southeastern landscape, and it remains so year round. Color is best with some afternoon shade (to prevent any minimal scorch that might occur on the lighter areas of the foliage) but remains in good condition all year. 'O'Spring' is relatively slow growing but is not a dwarf and will eventually reach 15 feet. When planted amongst other dark green evergreens, 'O'Spring' becomes a marbled work of botanical sculpture.
In general, Chinese Holly should be transplanted from a container into full sun or partial shade and almost any soil will work. Chinese Holly is fully cold hardy on the coast and in the Piedmont but may suffer foliar damage in severe mountain winters unless planted in a protected site. There are no serious pest or disease problems with these cultivars. Chinese Holly is readily propagated from hardwood cuttings taken most any time when some hardened wood is available. Cuttings should be treated with rooting promoter and rooted under mist. Propagation of Hollies from seed can be a challenge, whatever holly you're dealing with, and Chinese Holly is no exception. Seed should be separated from the flesh of the berry, sowed in a moist, well-drained medium, kept somewhat moist, and not stared at, because it can take 18 months for germination. It is important to remember that propagation from seed will result in plants with a range of horticultural characteristics, including whether plants are male or female. Cultivars must be propagated from cuttings to retain their unique character. 'D'or' and 'O'Spring' are two exceptional Chinese Hollies that can bring a flash of color to the winter garden. The rich golds of their fruit or foliage are not only aesthetically magnificent, but are dependably consistent in the face of extreme heat and other demanding site conditions. At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), both 'D'or' and 'O'Spring' shine in the gardens of the East Arboretum. A walk through the quiet paths of the Arboretum in winter is sure to reveal their sparkling gold.