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When Holly Met Harry: Plants that Need Pollinators

Q. Hi Mike! My husband and I are planting some China Girl hollies. We would like them to have red berries in the winter. We currently have some male hollies of other cultivars: a Blue Prince and some English ones. Our female hollies of those types get lots of berries. Our property is a square one acre and the male hollies are on the sides. The new China Girls will be in the middle of the acre. Will the male hollies we currently have "do the job" of fertilizing the China Girls, or should we also plant a China Boy? Thanks!
    ---Joan in Berwyn, PA
A. Thank you, Joan, for the opportunity to address this important subject—and to tell one of my favorite garden stories.

Three or four seasons ago, David Wilson, an otherwise highly respected plant professional, insisted on coming to my home personally to deliver two new releases from the "Garden Splendor" line. One was a disease resistant lilac with an easily pronounceable ("Na-Des-Da") but virtually unspellable Russian name (Nadesdza). It means "Hope" (which is all that David had for his poor plants after he saw my landscape). The other was a holly named "Red Beauty" that he explained was a hybrid of a blue holly and a non-blue. (The blueness of 'blue hollies', by the way, is in the leaves, not their berries).

He further told me (after calling the Red Cross to request that they come by to provide the poor things with chocolate, blankets and access to Jimmy Carter) that the holly was a female that needed a nearby male to produce berries. And NO, none of the adjacent alien invasives with berries on them were any kind of holly, as I had hoped. (A botanist I ain't.) "Where's the male then?", I asked, looking inside his car.

"I didn't bring you one."

"Well!" I thought.

OK—I said it out loud.

I planted the holly anyway, hoping that at least the deer wouldn't eat it, like they do our siding in bad winters. Thankfully, the giant-stomachs-on-legs have not touched it. And even without a proper beau being provided, Red Beauty has lived up to it's name, producing huge flushes of bright red berries against lush deep green leaves every year—on a magnificent plant bred by the legendary Dr. Elwin Orton of Rutgers to have a distinctly Christmas tree-like shape. A real winner! (The esteemed Pennsylvania Horticultural Society apparently agrees, having just awarded it their coveted "Gold Medal" designation for 2010 as a superior landscape plant.)

Anyway, the berries were no surprise to our old friend and holly lover, Paul Meyer, Director of the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, which has an impressive collection of over 170 different kinds of hollies, but is nowhere near the West Philly-based University whose name it bears. (It's located a good 40 miles away in Chestnut Hill.) "Bees carry the pollen of holly plants great distances," he explains; "so if there's a compatible male within a quarter of a mile and you have a bee-friendly landscape, your female holly should produce berries without your having to plant a male.

"The flowers of hollies don't look very special to us", he continues, "but they're very bright and attractive up close, which is how the bees see them. Those flowers are also wonderfully fragrant—and loaded with the pollen and nectar bees are seeking, so they generally get a lot of visits."

Holly flowers are fragrant?

"Oh yes. If you have a number of hollies, you'll smell them in the Spring; I always catch the scent here at the Arboretum. If you only have one or two plants, take the time to smell the flowers next Spring—you'll be amazed.

"Now if your listener likes hollies and has the room, I do recommend they get a China Boy," he continues; "its a great looking plant, and would guarantee they get the maximum number of berries. But their blue and English hollies do flower at the same time of year—early in the season—so they probably don't 'need' a China Boy, especially if they're getting tight on space. They would need it if their other varieties were American or Winterberry hollies, as they flower later in the season. You don't need a 'dedicated' male (that's one that has the same basic name as the female) to get fruit; just a holly that's related and blooms at the same time as the female."

So what about my laize-faire 'Mystery Date' method? I can't imagine I'd get any more berries on my 'Beauty' if there were a dedicated male right next to it carrying a ring, a dozen roses and a box of Belgian chocolates!

"If you're short on space, absolutely go ahead and plant the female and see what happens," says Paul. "In a neighborhood with a lot of hollies around, the chances are very good that some compatible males will be blooming at the right time—even if there aren't any other hollies in your direct line of sight. If you don't get berries in a season or two, then get the male.

"Again, it doesn't have to be the named 'Boy' for that 'Girl' or 'Prince' for that 'Princess'. But I do recommend those plants. The named compatible males have been bred and selected to have a very nice appearance on their own—no berries, of course, but great structure and beautiful leaves."

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