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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, November 24, 2018 1:00 am

Holly can grow here but will take work

Ricky Kemery

Question: I have tried several times to plant a holly tree in my landscape, but after a few years they turn brown and die. What am I doing wrong?

The ancient Druids considered holly to be a sacred plant. Holly leaves remained green and shiny during the winter and the berries a brightly colored red in the harshest of conditions. The Druids regarded holly as a magical tree, thought to bring fertility and eternal life. It was considered very bad luck to cut down a holly tree. Holly was also thought to protect homes against lightning strikes. The Romans associated holly with Saturn, the god of agriculture and harvest, and decorated their homes with its boughs during the festival of Saturnalia. Holly wood is hard and compact, making it excellent for carving, and was used to make chess pieces and walking sticks.

Christians believed the red berries of holly represented the blood that Jesus shed on the cross on the day he was crucified. Legend states that holly berries were originally white, but that the blood Christ shed for the sins of humankind stained the berries forever red. A holly's pointed leaves symbolize the crown of thorns placed on Jesus' head before he died on the cross.

American Holly (Ilex Opaca) is native to the U.S. and was established as the official state tree of Delaware in 1939. Winterberry is a holly shrub minus the traditional spiked leaves that is also native to the southern U.S. Most holly shrubs are either English Holly (Ilex aquifolium), or complex hybrids. Only a few holly shrubs are reliably hardy for our area.

Holly's berries are toxic to humans, resulting in nausea and severe stomachaches when ingested. The berries can be a source of winter food for birds such as thrushes and blackbirds. Most hollies are evergreens that can thrive in the sunlight or part shade. Hollies are dioecious, with male and female flowers found on separate plants. Only the females can produce berries. A male plant must be planted near a female plant for berries to be produced.

I remember observing a full-grown holly tree on the northeast side of Fort Wayne when I began my Extension career more than 25 years ago. They are beautiful trees, but few and far between in our area. Holly trees are marginally hardy for northern Indiana, and struggle in our variable climate of drought, heat, humidity and freezing cold. Holly prefers rich moist acidic soil, not the heavy clay that is typical for this area. To grow a holly tree successfully, amend the clay soil with organic matter. Add one pound of sulfur around the tree each year in the spring. Place the tree in a well-protected area because holly trees are sensitive to winter scorch of the leaves. Above all, make sure the root flare of the tree is above grade and the site is not too wet or dry. Use compost and or rotted leaves as a mulch and fertilizer each spring. If you are lucky, then you will be rewarded with a beautiful and unusual tree for the home landscape.

The Plant Medic, written by Ricky Kemery, appears every other Saturday. Kemery retired as the extension educator for horticulture at the Allen County branch of the Purdue Extension Service.