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Bringing greenery in to our homes around the time of the winter solstice has been a tradition for centuries. English holly (Ilex aquifolium) is perhaps one of the best known. Traditionally, boughs of holly were brought into the house as a fertility symbol because it retains its red berries and shiny leaves throughout the winter months. It was also widely believed that holly protected the house from witchcraft and goblins. Later, Christians maintained this pagan tradition, giving it a religious interpretation.
Whatever our reasons, many of us still like using greens and other branches with colourful bark to decorate our homes or make swags or wreaths to hang on our doors over the winter solstice and holiday season. Luckily, the B.C. climate allows us to grow a wide variety of plants suitable for this type of decoration.
Since I mentioned English holly, it should be noted that this plant has become invasive in coastal areas of B.C., seeding itself about and taking over as an understorey plant in open forests and Garry oak woodlands. In fact, on Hornby Island they have done a banner job of removing all the holly from the Garry oak forest on the bluffs. Having given English holly a bad rap, I would like to suggest growing an eastern North American deciduous holly that is not invasive and is most attractive. It is Ilex verticillata (winterberry), which is hardy to zone 5 and suitable for gardens throughout the southern interior and on the coast.
Winterberry forms a shrub or small tree up to 5 m (15 ft.) in height, although I must say the ones at UBC are only about 2 m (6.5 ft.) tall. During spring and summer it is covered with bright-green pointed leaves and in mid spring produces white flowers. Like most hollies, it needs a male for pollination. Bright-red berries are produced by fall and, as the leaves turn golden in November, it is quite a sight. But the pièce de résistance is when all the leaves have dropped in December; then the dark, almost black, branches show off the scarlet fruit to the best advantage, especially on dark grey rainy days.
As far as soil conditions go, winterberry seems to do well on sites with good drainage. At UBC, the soil was supplemented with some manure and bone meal at planting time over 20 years ago. Apart from a summer mulching now and again, they seem to thrive on neglect. (Or maybe this is why they’re only a couple metres tall instead of five!)
There is a cultivar of the plant with much stronger stems that turns up at florists’ shops and in markets during the holiday season – Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’ is a cross between I. serrata and I. verticillata with the same hardiness. I haven’t seen plants for sale, but it might be one to seek out.
Red and green seems to be a pleasing colour combination at this time of year and one of my favourites is Skimmia japonica. This is a dome-shaped evergreen shrub with dark-green, obovate leaves. Some sources suggest it reaches a height of 6 m (20 ft.), but ours in the Asian Garden are over 20 years old and are only about 2 m (61⁄2 ft.) tall and about the same in width. Skimmia is native to milder regions of Japan so it is only hardy to zone 7 and up. It loves our acidic coastal soil conditions and thrives best in semi-shade along with rhododendrons and camellias.
In spring the shrub is covered with sweetly scented, dense panicles of white flowers. These in turn form bunches of green berries that turn bright red for the winter months, almost mimicking holly. Like holly, this plant needs a male pollinator, and while you need only one for several female bushes, the male plant is also decorative. It tends to have the same form, with darker-green, almost magenta-edged foliage. The flower buds, which are developed long before winter, are also a magenta colour. The flowers stand up well when cut and the branches add interesting highlights to indoor winter arrangements.
Another favourite is Leucothoe axillaris. This low-growing shrub native to the southeastern U.S. is hardy in zone 6 and up. Reaching an overall height of just over 1 m (3 ft.), it is covered with oblong, pointed evergreen leaves. During spring and early summer it bears racemes of urn-shaped white flowers. It seems quite happy with our coastal soil and in winter, especially if planted in open sunny sites, the foliage and stems turn quite red, making it an ideal addition to holiday wreaths.
Of course, not everything needs to be evergreen to add interest to winter decorations. The deciduous shrub Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ comes to us from Europe and is hardy in zone 3 and up, so all our readers can grow it. A naturally occurring genetic variation of the filbert, it has interesting twisted and contorted branches much sought after by flower arrangers. C. avellana ‘Contorta’ can attain an overall height of 3 m (10 ft.) or more and tends to like open situations with moist, but not waterlogged soil conditions. The bare branches are covered with catkins in early spring, but it seldom forms nuts.
It should be noted that the contortion of the branches is carried through to the summer foliage, making the leaves curled and somewhat diseased-looking during the summer months. The branches are most eye-catching in the winter months once the foliage has fallen, and the twisting branchlets added to door swags or wreaths make for a pleasing contrast to assorted evergreens. A friend of mine has planted one in a courtyard visible from inside her home. A light is carefully placed at the base of the shrub to shine up through the branches and it is an outstanding feature of her garden on dark winter nights.
The other branches I like to feature in winter decorations are those of Euonymus alatus, which is sometimes better known by its common names, burning bush or winged spindle tree. Native to colder regions of China and Japan, it is hardy to zone 4 and up. It grows to just over 2 m (61⁄2 ft.) tall and about 1 m (3 ft.) wide and prefers an open sunny location and well-drained soil.
The branches are dense and covered with dark-green leaves from early spring through fall, at which time they turn a brilliant red for a week or so before dropping – hence the burning bush name! After the leaves have fallen, the delicate, four-sided corky wings on the branches are revealed. They look magnificent in the garden when covered with hoarfrost or light snow. And like the contorted filbert, the branches add much interest to arrangements.
Since we have mentioned Euonymus, there is a variegated evergreen form, E. fortunei ‘Emerald ’n Gold’, much loved by wreath makers. E. fortunei, the plain dark-green form, is native to China and hardy to zones 5 and up. It is a valuable landscape plant that has been highly hybridized with much success, and ‘Emerald ’n Gold’ is a winner whether used in holiday arrangements or not. Placed in a bed or border visible from the house, this mounding evergreen with its gleaming foliage can be a bright spot in our dull grey winter days. The overall height and width is 1 m (3 ft.).
All evergreen conifers add winter interest, but one in particular stands out and it is Cupressus arizonica var. arizonica ‘Blue Ice’ (I know, it is a mouthful of a name.).
It is, of course, a cultivar and only hardy to zone 7 and up. It needs room to grow, as it will reach 15 m (50 ft.) in height. It has beautiful, intricate, glaucous leaves of a true grey-blue colour that gives them a frosty look. Because the foliage is dense and bushy, it is a great candidate for adding bulk to a wreath or table decoration.
This is just a small selection – the tip of the iceberg, really – of lovely plants that add interest to our winter gardens and are also a bountiful source of material that we can use to deck our halls throughout the holiday season.
The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ (contorted filbert) – zone 3 • Cupressus arizonica var. arizonica ‘Blue Ice’ – zone 7 • Euonymus alatus (burning bush, winged spindle tree) – zone 4 • Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald ’n Gold’ – zone 5 • Ilex aquifolium (English holly) – zone 5 • Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’ – zone 5 • Ilex verticillata (winterberry) – zone 5 • Leucothoe axillaris – zone 6 • Skimmia japonica – zone 7
David Tarrant of the UBC Botanical Garden is a well-known gardening expert, author, and host of Spring, currently on HGTV.