Ilex aquifolium

Family: Aquifoliaceae

Countries: Africa, Albania, Algeria, Austria, Balearic Islands, Belgium, Bulgaria, Corsica, Denmark, England, Europe, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Morocco, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Sardegna, Scotland, Sicily, Switzerland, Tunisia, United Kingdom, Wales, Yugoslavia

Ilex aquifolium is the commonest holly we have in the UK; plants can be found growing both in the wild and as cultivated, garden plants.  This holly species can be used as container plants, for hedging, or grown as specimen trees.  Ilex aquifolium is native to the UK (Ilex aquifolium is absent from the Outer Hebrides, the Shetland Isles, and Orkney) but this is also a native plant of West Asia, North Africa, Southern and Western Europe.

Holly are valuable plants; Ilex aquifolium are evergreen and look handsome all through the year.  These versatile plants provide somewhere for birds to nest, while Ilex aquifolium hedges that reach right to the ground offer shelter to hedgehogs and provide a place for many forms of wildlife to nest, shelter, or hibernate.  Hollies are dioecious; they produce male and female flowers on separate plants.  Self fertile hollies are available, for example Ilex aquifolium ‘JC Van Tol’, but if you’re not growing a self fertile variety, then you’ll need to have a male holly plant growing somewhere nearby to ensure pollination and a bumper crop of holly berries every autumn and winter.  Male Ilex aquifolium plants produce flowers whose presence is vital to successfully pollinate nearby female Ilex aquifolium plants, but male plants don’t produce any berries themselves – it’s the female Ilex aquifolium plants that bear all the berries.  A single male Ilex aquifolium plant can successfully pollinate a number of female plants.

Ilex aquifolium flowers in late spring – I think my plants’ main flowering time is usually around May time – in my garden at least.  Ilex aquifolium flowers are fairly insignificant, but their small white and green flowers last for a long time and the flowers attract a steady stream of bees.   I grow a number of hollies in my garden, as I hold so much affection for these plants and I relish the opportunity to observe the insects these plants’ attract.  In May, I love to watch the bees pollinating my holly plants’ flowers.  I get so much joy from watching Holly Blue Butterflies laying their eggs on Ilex aquifolium flower buds and I delight in watching Holly Blue caterpillars developing to full size – please let me reassure you that Holly Blue caterpillar damage really is minimal – the caterpillars will feed on the flowers.  None of my fellow gardeners or friends have ever noticed a caterpillar or caterpillar damage on my plants, despite me presenting them with many opportunities to spot them.  My Ilex aquifolium  plants produce the ideal ratio of berry to leaf.  Holly berries are eaten by many birds, but I most often observe Blackbirds tucking into the holly berries, in my garden.

Thriving in any moist but well-drained soil, including, clay, chalk, silt, sand, and loam; Ilex aquifolium will grow happily in acid, alkaline, or neutral soils.  Avoid planting Ilex aquifolium in wet or waterlogged soil, or areas that are prone to water-logging, as holly will decline in wet conditions.  Ilex aquifolium will grow in full sunshine, partial shade, dappled shade, and shaded conditions.  If you’re planting Ilex aquifolium in a container, choose a large planter with a hole at the base and fill the container with peat-free compost; add in some garden soil if you have some spare, and apply mycorrhizal fungi on your plant’s roots immediately before planting.  After planting, take care to water your plant thoroughly and remember to regularly check and water your Ilex aquifolium throughout the first year, and ideally for the first couple of years after planting.  Ilex aquifolium takes time to establish itself, as young plants grow slowly, but this is an easy going and easy-to-grow plant that will become pretty drought tolerant and resilient once its root system has developed and the plant has established and settled into its new home.

Ilex aquifolium plants are very slow growing plants, but given optimum growing conditions and sufficient time, Ilex aquifolium can eventually form trees that reach up to 12m (40ft) tall.  However, don’t panic – it will take an Ilex aquifolium plant many decades to reach this size!  Smaller plants can easily be contained by regular pruning or training.  I find Ilex aquifolium is best pruned in January or February, before the birds have started nesting.

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