What a relief.
Last week's temperatures did not go as low as predicted.
Temperatures in the low 30s did not damage plants, but hardened them for colder days to come.
Cooler temperatures, and all the decorations we use, help get us into the spirit of the season. All of the greenery adds to the feel of Christmas.
There are a number of plants that can be used to add color to the season. Some of these are native plants, and some are introduced. One of the best plants for Christmas color is the hollies. They have green foliage and red berries. Another plant that will provide color is pyracantha.
The English holly, Ilex aquifolium, is the holly most identified with the Christmas season in legend and song, but it is not the holly best suited for the South. Other hollies make better choices for our gardens.
The hollies are very diverse. You can get hollies that are evergreen or deciduous. There are hollies that will grow 1 to 2 feet in height or 40 to 50 feet high. One of the more common uses of hollies is as foundation plantings, but many of the taller varieties are used as screens. Hollies will either be female or male plants; however, there are some types that are self-fertile. In order to get the most berries, you need both male and female plants. Even the self-fertile will have a better crop of berries if a male plant is present.
Hollies will grow in a range of soils. They can grow in standing water or on the driest site. But they grow best on rich, moist soils with good drainage. They need a good layer of mulch to help conserve moisture, keep the soil cool and cut down on weed competition. Hollies can grow in full sun or partial shade, but needs full sun to produce a heavy berry crop.
The most common native holly in our area is the American holly, Ilex opaca .
When I was growing up, one way I made some money for Christmas was to walk the woods and collect mistletoe and prune holly limbs that had berries on them. I would sell them for Christmas decorations. The American holly is slow growing and can reach a height of 50 feet.
The tree can have a rounded shape if grown in full sun, but when grown under other trees it will have a pyramid shape. The leaves are 2 to 4 inches long with spines.
Another group that has excellent berry production is the Chinese holly, Ilex cornuta . There are many different types of these hollies. They will range in height from about 3 feet to about 40 feet.
One of the more common and one of the heavier berry producers is Burford holly. The berries are prized as food by mockingbirds and cedar waxwings. The Burford holly also comes in a dwarf form that will grow to about 8 feet tall.
Probably the best all-around holly for the South is one named Nellie R. Stevens. This holly is most likely a cross between Chinese holly and English holly. It is fast-growing and will get 15 to 25 feet in height. It has glossy, dark-green, leathery leaves. It will set fruit without a male plant, but you will get more berries if a male plant is present.
If you like deciduous plants, then Ilex decidua is a great holly to have. The common name is possumhaw. This holly will form a small tree that is 6 to 10 feet high, but it can grow to 20 feet. It likes moist soils. This plant can have a heavy crop of large red berries.
Another plant that can be used for color is pyracantha. One of the common names for this plant is Firethorn, because of the red or orange berries and the many thorns it has. This is a fast-growing plant that has many different forms.
Some of these plants will grow upright and some will be sprawling. This plant works well when espaliered on a wall or trellis.
But the most outstanding characteristic of this plant is the berries. They will have thick clusters of pea-size berries that stand out in the garden. In late winter, these berries draw numerous birds to this plant. This plant requires little pruning, and if you want the most berries you don't prune it.
There are a few problems with pyracantha. The most common is fire blight. This is the disease that attacks pear and apple trees. There are varieties that are resistant to this disease.
Charles Phillips is a retired Columbia County Extension Service agent and operates Hort Consulting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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