Holly's beautiful winter berries

By Andrew Collyer - Practical Gardening

Published 22/12/2015 | 00:00

Wash down your white birch trunks& branches for christmas

Poinsettia, no Christmas house should be without one.

Bacciferous. No, I didn't know what it mean't either. Not until I saw an edition of 'University challenge' on BBC television recently. I sometimes watch the programme with the hope that I may get one or even two questions correct and be proud of myself because of it.

Question: 'In botany, what does term bacciferous refer to?'. Having done some botany I felt I should have been in with a chance of getting my quota of correct answers up to par. But I drew a blank. Luckily I wasn't the only one suffering from general ingnorance as none of the contestants knew either. Bacciferous is a plant that produces berries. Which is quite appropriate as we often associate berries with Christmas, mainly due to our magnificant native tree the Holly [Ilex aquafolium]. Hollies fall in to a category of plants that everyone seems to love. Lavenders, flowering cherries, hawthorns and Japanese maples are also included.

Holly has always been seen as a plant of good luck and protection from bad going way back in folklore. Farmers traditionally would not cut down or remove hollies from hedgerows and a holly tree around the farmyard was considered to ward off evil. People also brought holly indoors for the same reason particularly in berry hence our Christmas association. Whether you believe in these things or not the holly tree is a thing of beauty and should be widely grown for that reason alone.

Hollies are dioecious, there's another botanical term, meaning each plant is either male or female and to get berries you need both within a bees flight range. Also of course only the females produce berries. The only exception to this is Ilex 'J.C. Van Tol' which is self pollinating with the added bonus that it is almost thornless. There are hundreds varieties of named hollies including two variegated cultivars rather confusing called 'Golden King' which is female and 'Silver Queen ' which is male. Ilex 'Bacciflava' is a yellow berried variety.

Holly is not the only berrying plant the birds leave alone until Christmas. Skimmia japonica tends to carry its bright red berries all year round. Skimmias are small evergreen shrubs that again need a male and female plant to produce berrys. As always there is an exception, Skimmia reevesiana is self fertile but it is an arkward little plant to get established and needs a lime free soil.

There are many good Skimmia japonica to choose from but all are best planted in the shade, in the sun their leaves tend to yellow. S. 'Rubella' and S.'Rubinetta' are both male forms with red buds that hold over winter then open white in early spring. Other males include S.'Fragrans' which is particularly fragrant but all varieties tend to have some scent. Skimmia confusa 'Kew Green' has green buds opening white.

For berrying females S. 'Nymans' is free fruiting and S. ' Olympic Flame' is also reliably abundant. S. 'Kew White' has white berries. I am very fond of Skimmias as they tick a lot of boxes as a garden plant but you do have to give them time to settle in and be diligent when planting giving them plenty of organic matter but they will reward you.

A marvellous much under used berrying plant is Gaultheria mucronata, formerly called Pernettya, which although not strictly dioecious is best planted in groups of three or more for cross pollination. It is a plant that looks best grown in groups anyway so that's not a hardship. It is a good plant for damp shady lime free soils where it will produce possibly the most impressive berries of any plant. Large marble like fruits in white, cherry red, crimson, pink and purple are displayed on wiry evergreen thicket around 50cms high.

Even more than winter flowering plants I think winter berries are extra special, they have an endearing mother earth quality about them. And give us that warm Christmas feeling when seen at this time of year. Have a very happy Christmas.

Wexford People

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