Holly bears a berry | Gardening Jargon No.5

Holly is steeped in folklore, having been a symbol of mid-winter festival since pre-Christian times, it was used to decorate entrances to dwellings because of its prickles which were said to snag evil spirits!


Most garden plants have both male and female flowers on the same plant – this is called monoecious – but this isn’t the case with Holly (Botanical name: Ilex). Different plants have either male or female flowers. This is called dioecious. Getting your Holly to bear berries depends on you having both a female plant to produce the berries and a male plant to pollinate it. Male and female native holly (Ilex aquifolium) look identical and the only way to tell if they are male or female is when they flower. However, specific varieties produced by cuttings can be guaranteed to be either male or female but don’t rely on a name to identify your plant. Presumably someone had a sense of humour or was a bit confused when naming the very popular variegated varieties Ilex ‘Golden King’ and ‘Silver Milkboy’ which are female and Ilex ‘Silver Queen’ and ‘Golden Queen’ which are male. As with all rules, there are a few exceptions: the varieties Ilex aquifolium ‘Alaksa’ and ‘J C van Tol’ are self-fertile (monoecious) and have male and female flowers on the same plant but they will always produce more berries if there is male variety nearby. ‘Alaska’ is very similar in look to native holly but is very reliable at producing berries. ‘J C van Tol’ has spineless leaves so is less thorny. Ilex ‘Ferox Argentea’, often called the Hedgehog Holly because of its wonderful curled, spiny, silver-variegated leaves is a male, but it is not a reliable pollinator as it often has sterile male flowers. However, it is worth growing just for the evergreen leaf shape and colour that look good all year round.


Other types of dioecious plant include Skimmia with the variety Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ being an ornamental male with red flower buds and Skimmia japonica ‘Nymans’ being female with berries. Yew (Taxus), Maidenhair Tree (Gingko) and Willow (Salix) are also dioecious.


If you are in any doubt about how to ensure you get berries on your plants, please ask a member of staff and they will be able to help.

Roger Eavis