Plant of the Month - January 2012


Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh ho, sing heigh ho, unto the green holly;
most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly. 

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remember'd not.
Heigh ho, sing heigh ho, unto the green holly:
most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Heigh Ho, The Holly by William Shakespeare

Our first ever Plant of the Month is traditionally associated with Christmas, yet is at its absolute prime at the Gardens at this time of year. I refer of course to Holly, otherwise known as the genus Ilex. The genus has 400 - 600 species, and can be found in temperate zones throughout the world.

Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen. Public Domain.

The Royal Horticultural Society's Gardeners' Encyclopedia of Plant and Flowers describes Ilex as a:

'Genus of evergreen or deciduous trees and shrubs, grown for their foliage and fruits (berries). Mainly spherical berries, ranging in colour from red through to yellow and black, are produced in Autumn, following insignificant, usually white flowers, borne in spring. Almost all plants are unisexual, and to obtain fruits on a female plant a male also needs to be grown.' (p.518).

Common Holly (Ilex aquifolium) flowers; male above, female below. 
Photo: MPF - Wikipedia

We'd hesitate before calling the flowers 'insignificant' ourselves, but that's opinion for you. Anyway, Holly does best in a well drained soil, with deciduous and variegated varieties being particularly partial to sun or semi-shade. 

Holly grows in enormous abundance at Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens. The Holly Walk would just be a 'Walk' without it, and our Maze would be far less of a challenge! Here are some of the varieties to be found in the Upper and Lower Wilderness areas:

In the Lower Wilderness you will find:

Ilex aquifolium 'Bacciflava' ( Yellow-fruited holly)

'Bacciflava' is an evergreen shrub or tree with dark green spiny leaves in autumn,spring,summer and winter. Has white flowers in spring and summer, and gorgeous light yellow berries in autumn and winter. Grows to a height between 4-8 metres and spread up to 4 metres. It looks ideal planted in beds and flower borders, and screen/hedging.

Ilex x altaclerensis 'Golden King' (Golden King)

'Golden King' is a bushy shrub or tree and has broad ovate, slightly spiny leaves, with a margin of bright yellow. The flowers appear in spring and summer, are small and are dull white. The berries appear in autumn, winter and are brownish-red. 'Golden King' can take up to 50 years to reach a height of 8 metres.

Meanwhile, in the Upper Wilderness, you can find our old friend:

Ilex aquifolium ( Common Holly)

Aquifolium is a lovely medium sized green tree. It has gorgeous dark green spiny strong leaves. Aquifolium bears white flowers in spring which are followed by bright beautiful red berries which are pollinated on the female parts of the plant. This plant loves the full sun.

This variety makes the walls of our wonderful Maze:

Photo: Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens Trust

Moving onto our spectacular Holly Walk, you'll find that this is comprised of yet another variety of Ilex:

Ilex aquifolium 'Argentea Marginata' ( Silver-margined holly)

'Argentea Marginata' is a bushy medium sized evergreen of conical outline with a height higher than 12 metres and spread of 4 to 8 metres. Has spiny, undulated leaves and is boldly edged with cream and green colour in autumn, winter and summer and has a trace of pink in spring. Flowers small, dull white, with bright red berries in autumn and winter. Ideal for north,east,south and west facing locations and is great grown as a hedge or on its own.

The main problems that Holly face are provided by the Holly Leaf Miner, and / or the Holly Aphid.

Holly is can be propagated by seed in spring or by semi-ripe cuttings in late summer.

Batty Langley in his 1727 book New Principles of Gardening described the raising of Holly thus:

'The wild or green holly is usually raised from its berries, which must be gathered when ripe, and afterwards sweated before they are put in sand, as I have already directed: In which operation care must be taken, that they do not heat over-much in the sweat, for thereby it often happens, that they become useless, which greatly disappoints the diligent planter.' (p.153)

The berries of various species are slightly toxic to humans, although its poisonous properties have been exaggerated and poisoning deaths are almost unknown. Berries attract birds that eat them after the frosts have reduced toxicity.

Several holly species are used to make caffeine-rich herbal teas in various countries, we do not condone or recommended this.

With that brief warning we conclude our brief investigation of Ibex (other than to say if you visit the Gardens, you will experience the beauty of these varities first-hand). We leave the final word to Batty Langley:

'This plant makes an excellent hedge in either Garden, Wilderness, or common Field, and a good fence against Cattle: 'Tis a tree as will grow in the Drip or Shade of Forest Trees, and is a beautiful Plant in the Quarters of a Wilderness or Thicket: Its leaves are always beautiful, and the berries afford a most delightful and agreeable prospect in most months of the year.'

Recommended Further Reading:

Brickell, Christopher (ed.): The Royal Horticultural Society Gardners' Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers, Dorling Kinderseley 1995,  ISBN 0 7513 0147

Langley, Batty: New principles of gardening: or, The laying out and planting parterres, groves, wildernesses, labyrinths, avenues, parks, &c. after a more grand and rural manner, than has been done before:with experimental directions for raising the several kinds of fruit-trees, forest-trees, ever-greens and flowering-shrubs with which gardens are adorn'd. To which is added, the various names, descriptions, temperatures, medicinal virtues, uses and cultivations of several roots, pulse, herbs, &c. of the kitchen and physick gardens, that are absolutely necessary for the service of families in general..,  1727. Reprinted by Gale ECCO ISBN 978-1170-10633-4, or available as a free ebook from Google Books:

The Wikipedia entry for Holly is also most useful, and provides a valuable reading list / jumping off point for further study and research: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holly

Shirley Wynne, Circa. 1880s - Public Domain

Grateful thanks to:
Castle Bromwich Trust Gardeners Gordon and Steve, without whose generous assistance this entry would not have been either written or illustrated!
Creative Commons Licence

The photographs taken by Graham High in this work are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License


  1. That's a brilliant first "Plant of the Month" feature Graham. Some really interesting facts and I have learnt such a lot. When I next come to the Gardens I will look at the hollies in a totally different light.

    The Stargazing Event is a superb start to Events at the Gardens this year. Hoping to attend if I can get tickets!

  2. Thank you for your generous comments Caroline. :) It's the first 'Plant of the Month' entry, and hopefully future ones will steadily improve as I get more competent.

    Please contact the office for tickets re the Stargazing event on 0121 749 4100 or at admin@cbhgt.org.uk, or drop in tomorrow! I am also hoping to attend the event to get some blog pictures. I doubt if the Camera will cope with the stars, but at least I can get some of the gazers (with the flashgun switched off of course!).

  3. Thanks Mel; they were taken in a big hurry. Maybe that's the secret? ;)