EVERGREENS: 1. HOLLY

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NOW THAT deciduous trees are bare it is easy to see the attraction of evergreens. Without them, our gardens would be bleak places for more than half the year. This series looks at some of the different trees and shrubs that keep their leaves in winter.

It is seasonal to choose holly, but I think I would put it first whatever the time of year. The beauty of holly lies in its shiny leaves, which reflect the light even on dreary days. Its ancient mystic properties also make it hard to resist. All evergreens are a symbol of life at the dead time of year, but holly has been especially revered. Pre-Christians brought holly indoors in winter to provide a refuge for woodland spirits. The Romans are said to have collected it to celebrate Saturnalia and now it adorns our houses for Christmas.

It is the female holly that bears the berries and if berries are important, both male and female forms must be planted. The nomenclature of hollies is puzzling. Do not imagine that a female name implies berries. "Silver Queen" and "Golden Queen" are both male, while "Golden King" is female. Of the green-leaved female forms Ilex x altclarensis "Camelliifolia" is the most desirable. Its leaves are large and shining with few prickles, although it could not safely be planted in cold gardens, but Ilex x altclarensis "J C van Tol" is almost as handsome and has lovely red fruit.

The variegated hollies were favourites in early gardens when the French and Dutch influences were strong. Clipped into cones and globes of gold and silver, they punctuated the hedges, canals and flower beds of formal layouts. In small gardens, where trees would take up too much space, shaped holly bushes can still be a cheerful sight. You sometimes see them in the front gardens of old terraced houses, oblivious to traffic fumes, lighting up the street like nothing else can do. In this garden I am trying to grow two "Golden van Tol" bushes to be admired from the kitchen window; even in their infancy they brighten the path at the north side of the house. "Golden King" is technically a better form, but not quite as vigorous. Both these have leaves edged with yellow. For a bigger splash "Gold-en Milkboy" has a gold centre and green margins. The silver hollies are really creamy variegated forms with white splashes and edges. Their effect is magical. "Silver Queen" is the most reliable, but "Silver Milkmaid" is more striking. Unfortunately, all Milkboys and Milkmaids have a tendency to revert to plain green. There is a curious silver hedgehog holly, "Ferox Argentea", with twisted leaves, which some people find it fascinating.

All holly makes a beautiful (and vandal-proof) hedge. There are, however, disadvantages to planting it. The leaves, like those of all evergreens, are shed in summer. Any holly, whether hedge or trimmed tree, will need to be clipped with care, because large leaves cut in half look ugly. The best way to cut it is with shears and secateurs, but you can use a hedge trimmer if you are prepared to tidy up the worst of the damage afterwards.

Hollies do best in well-drained light soil, but they will survive almost anywhere. They dislike being transplanted, and the best time to do this is in late spring or early autumn. Pot-grown plants should settle at any time. Rabbits devour holly, which seems to be low on predator-defeating prickles in the early stages. They also eat the bark of young trees.

Mary Keen

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