Hollies are best choice in landscaping shrubs for North Texas

Carissa and dwarf Chinese holly grow to about 36 inches high.

Carissa and dwarf Chinese holly grow to about 36 inches high.

If you want to know what pros think of a product, you see if they’re using it. They won’t risk their reputations on something inferior.

Taking that to my industry, let’s go back 22 months. It was late February 2021. Texas had just endured a catastrophic late season freeze that caught plants on the verge of tender spring growth. We were soon made aware that entire landscapes would face replacement.

Nurseries got busy booking all the orders they could. Landscape contractors grabbed trailers and headed to wholesale growers outside the freeze zone. Those pros stocked up on plants that had stood up to the cold. They knew their customers would be seeking them feverishly within just a matter of days.

At the top of their shopping lists came hollies. Where other shrubs had frozen back to the snow line or been killed out entirely, hollies had stood up to the wintry blast, coming out smiling on the other side.

I think back to my introduction to hollies. I had just joined the Extension Service and a man who became my mentor, Steve Dodd of Dodd’s Garden Center in Dallas, had just come off a term as president of the Texas Association of Nurserymen (now Texas Nursery and Landscape Association).

Steve took me aside and explained to me why hollies are our best investment in landscaping shrubs for North Central Texas. He used phrases like “sun or shade,” “no serious insect or disease problems,” “adapted to almost any kind of soil” and “come in all sizes.” Steve had come from a big nursery family in South Alabama well known for turning out fabulous hollies. He knew his stuff.

From that beginning, I preach to you the gospel of the late Steve Dodd: “Wherever you are in this world, if there is a holly that’s adapted there, it’s going to be your best landscaping choice.” Actually, those are my words, but I think Steve will forgive me for bringing him into the credits.

Since this is the season to be thinking about hollies, let me tell you some of the best for our area. I’m going to do it in a rather unusual way, though. I don’t think I’ve ever written it out in plain Latin for all to see. You want to concentrate on Ilex cornuta and all its hybrids and selections. That’s Chinese holly. You want to avoid (in alkaline soils like the Blackland Prairie) Ilex crenata. That’s Japanese holly. You see I. crenata hybrids sold here, but my advice is that you not be tempted to buy and try them. Or, if you are, let it only happen one time. For most of us that was enough.

Then there are some outliers. Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) and possumhaw holly (I. decidua) are both perfectly adapted to our soils and climate. They ought to be! Yaupon is native to much of East Texas and possumhaw calls “right here” its home.

To the specifics…

If I’m looking for a low-growing shrub, perhaps to replace the Indian hawthorns I’ve finally given up on, there are four hollies that fit that description.

Dwarf yaupon grows to 30 to 36 inches in height and width, but it’s often sheared into sizes smaller than that. No fruit on the common selections.

Carissa holly grows to 32 to 36 inches tall and wide. It prefers a bit of afternoon shade, and it’s not quite as drought-tolerant or winter-hardy as the others. Still, it’s a great substitute for Indian hawthorns. It does not bear fruit.

Dwarf Chinese holly grows to 36 inches tall and 40 inches wide if never sheared. My plants started to bear fruit after they were 30 years old.

Dwarf Burford holly is the tallest of these four, growing to 48 to 60 inches with no shearing. It’s often kept much shorter for decades. All plants bear large red berries almost from the day they are planted.

If I need something taller, perhaps as a screening shrub I have several favorites.

Willowleaf holly, also known as Needlepoint holly. This is a selection from Burford holly. It’s usually maintained at 6 or 7 feet but left unpruned it will grow to be 10 to 12 feet tall and wide. If bears copious amounts of large red berries.

Oakland holly grows to 12 to 15 feet tall and 8 or 9 feet wide, although few plants that large exist yet in the Metroplex. It hasn’t been around that long. It makes a great, bold-look evergreen screen.

Nellie R. Stevens holly is a hybrid out of the Chinese holly genetics. It’s my favorite large shrub to 12 to 15 feet tall and wide, making it the perfect replacement for redtip photinias that have taken the plunge with the fatal Entomosporium fungus. Nellie R. Stevens hollies load themselves with the largest red berries of any holly I grow.

Yaupon holly is a shrub that we’ve convinced to grow tree-form. Tree diggers harvested cattle-grazed plants off hillsides along Interstate 45 and we all fell in love with them. Yaupons have male and female flowers on separate plants. If you want berries, either buy a named variety or buy one already with fruit. Look, too, for weeping yaupon for the drama it brings to the landscape. If you want a columnar holly, Scarlet’s Peak yaupon would be your choice, although it’s hard to find. It’s much better adapted than Sky Pencil.

And finally, glorious Warren’s Red possumhaw holly, a selection of the native shrub. You want this one because it’s a female selection (hence will have fruit) and because its berries are larger and redder. They really show up against the bare branches all winter.

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