Winter's somber weave of silvery grey branches and feathery conifers is quietly lovely but a brilliant pool of scarlet or gold would be a delightful surprise when set among such subtle beauty. There are many wonderful plants that offer excellent winter interest, but few can rival the deciduous hollies for displays of startlingly bright, persistent color.
Deciduous hollies are a group of Ilex species and hybrids. They are closely related to the familiar evergreen hollies like English Holly, Ilex aquifolium, and the popular hybrid 'Nellie R. Stevens', but they differ significantly in that deciduous hollies lose their leaves each fall. Far from being a disadvantage, this annual leaf-fall allows for an even better show of the intensely colored red or gold berries left behind on the branches. While small creamy white or greenish flowers are borne through the spring and summer (depending on the species), the best season in the landscape for these hollies is, of course, winter when the colored fruit is a bright glow among the browns and grays of the branches.
There are many different deciduous hollies that vary in ultimate size and shape, exact fruit color, fruit retention, foliage quality and ease of propagation. All of the deciduous hollies are hardy throughout the southeast from the coast to the mountains. Like all hollies, male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Therefore, for good fruitset, a male plant must be near the female plant and must flower at about the same time in order for the female plant to set large numbers of fruit. The wide range of flowering times among hollies means it is important to have a male plant that flowers when the female plants do.
Winterberry, Ilex verticillata, is one of the hardiest and most widely grown species of deciduous holly. This species is native to the eastern half of North America and can be found growing in wet, swampy areas from Canada to Florida. It is a small, oval to rounded tree reaching 8 to 15 feet in height with a spread of about 10 feet. Winterberry is relatively slow growing and tends to form multi-stemmed clumps. The foliage is an attractive, deep green that does not develop fall color. Early in the fall, Winterberry's small berries ripen into dense, colorful clusters.
Winterberry should be transplanted balled and burlapped and prefers, moist, acidic soil conditions but it will tolerate a range of soils as long as they are not exceptionally basic. Full sun will result in the best flowering and fruit set but partial shade is also acceptable. Winterberry can be propagated by softwood cuttings taken throughout the summer, treated with rooting promoters and rooted under mist. There are many gardenworthy cultivars of Winterberry. 'Winter Red' and 'Winter Gold' are two excellent selections. 'Winter Gold' is somewhat compact, with pinkish gold fruit and light green leaves. 'Winter Red' is one of the most widely available scarlet cultivars with dark green, beautiful foliage and intensely colored fruit.
Possumhaw, Ilex decidua, is native to the southeastern US. It differs from Winterberry in having the potential to reach 20 feet with a beautiful, very light grey bark and more complex branching. It tends to be less hardy than Winterberry (although it is still completely hardy in the southeastern US) and is more tolerant of basic soils. Possumhaw is more difficult to propagate vegetatively than Winterberry and is often grafted. Foliage is a handsome dark green which turns a light yellow in the fall. It generally flowers at the same time as American Holly, Ilex opaca, and so may not require a particular male to be planted nearby. As with Winterberry there are a number of good cultivars. 'Byer's Golden' is an unusual yellow-fruited cultivar with bright yellow fruit. 'Warren Red' is a cultivar that has done very well at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum). It fruits heavily with bright red fruit and may be somewhat more hardy than other Possumhaw selections.
Probably the best available deciduous hollies are the cultivars which are hybrids of Winterberry and the Japanese native Finetooth Holly, I. serrata. They exhibit prolific fruiting, excellent fruit color and color retention, and have handsome growth habits. Fruit colors early in the fall so that they are effective before the leaves fall, making a lovely combination with the green foliage. 'Sparkleberry' has an upright habit and very persistent scarlet fruit. 'Bonfire' has been an exceptionally striking selection at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum). 'Bonfire' has brilliant true red fruit in dense clusters. 'Apollo' is a good male hybrid to plant with 'Sparkleberry' and 'Bonfire'.
'Carolina Cardinal' is a special hybrid selection from The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) that will be released next year through the joint plant introduction program of The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) and the N.C. Association of Nurserymen. It is exceptionally compact with beautiful dark brown bark which sets a striking framework for the masses of crimson berries clustered along the branches. Low-growing and full, this selection will be perfect for smaller winter landscapes where one plant can create a vivid burst of scarlet.
Deciduous hollies bring firey brilliance to the winter landscape. Like a phoenix, they blaze crimson and gold across the ashy colors of other deciduous trees and shrubs. From a large massed planting near a pond or stream to a single specimen at a focal point of the garden, the bold fruit of these hollies creates a beacon of color unparalleled in the winter landscape.