Unlike the poinsettia, which is a relatively recent introduction to the Christmas plant scene, holly has been used indoors during the holidays for hundreds of years. The red berries are a colourful counterpoint to the dark days of December, much like the bright red bracts of the poinsettia. Add the glossy green leaves of evergreen holly and you have a mirror of the traditional red and green Christmas colour scheme.
The two species of holly most often used at Christmas are Ilex aquifolium, the English holly, and Ilex opaca, American holly. Cultivars of Ilex aquifolium, selected for their heavy berry production, are grown as huge hedges, often three to six metres high. There are more than 200 different cultivars, with considerable variation between leaf size, shape and berry colour. Unfortunately this species does not fare well during our windy, dry and sometimes cold Okanagan winters. It will survive, however, if planted in a sheltered location, between two buildings for example, protected from the wind. A cross between Ilex aquifolium and Ilex rugosa made a few decades back has given us Ilex x meserve. Hollies in this group will survive temperatures to at least -25 deg. C with no ill effects, and their dark green foliage looks spectacular in the landscape. You will need to plant at least one male variety to pollinate the female types.
The holly species which produces the showiest berries in winter is Ilex verticillata, the Winterberry. This one is deciduous, so the large red berries stand out against the bare stems. Winterberry is widely used in Christmas arrangements in flower shops, but if you plant it in the landscape you’ll be dazzled by the contrast between the berries and the snow. Winterberry demands a moist soil to do well however. There are several ways to use holly in the house. They can be worked into fresh flower arrangements, used in wreaths or in outdoor planters. Cut branches will preserve their shape and colour when used dry. They’ll stay much fresh if they’re kept in water though.

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