Holly berries create a bird feeding frenzy
It was like a scene out of "The Birds," one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, except the birds weren't attacking people but every berry-producing plant in the garden. It seemed to make no difference, hollies, nandinas -- and even the Chinese fringe tree's plump blue fruit -- all were fair game. The fruit had been just sitting there all winter and then, on a cold misty morning, they descended.
It was the loud chatter of robins and cedar waxwings that brought me outdoors and made my jaw drop. I grabbed my camera to try to capture the moment. As horticulturists, we are always promoting planting native hollies because they are a durable and beautiful winter asset, loaded with bright red berries that also feed wildlife.
Among the hollies the birds found particularly delectable were the native yaupons. Known botanically as Ilex vomitoria, this holly is native from the Deep South northward to zone 7. You'll find these available in your typical standard upright multitrunk form, and also as a weeping specimen.
Also high on the menu list was American holly (Ilex opaca), which is native to 28 states and has a wide cold hardiness range stretching from zones 5 through 9. Yaupon and American holly both make excellent choices for screens and look exceptional in clusters of three.
Equally cold-hardy and among birds' favorites are the deciduous hollies like possum-haw (Ilex decidua) and winterberry (Ilex verticillata). You might not think you would like a deciduous holly, but once you see them loaded up with berries way too numerous to count you will be forever hooked.
These hollies, so high on everyone's lists, have male and female plants. So if feeding the birds or cutting berry-laden branches for Christmas is high on your list, you will need female selections. Some recommend a male for every three females, but if you live in an area with hollies this is normally not an issue. Talk to your nursery staff about superior berry-producing varieties that are available for each of the species mentioned here.
Hollies top my list of plants and deserve to be placed in a prepared fertile bed, not mixed with turf, but incorporated with other shrubs. Several of these hollies can be the bones or foundation for a home's landscape.
Use them in companion plantings with azaleas or rhododendrons. Repeat these plantings in the landscape, placing redbuds and dogwoods in between the groups. Use them at corners to naturally lengthen the front of your home.
Even though these are tough, persevering shrubs, they do need water to get established. During the first year, make it a practice to train them to go deep with their root expansion by watering deeply but infrequently.
Though I am promoting hollies, please remember I said everything that had a fruit seemed to be a prime target for the feasting birds. So if you live in an area that can't grow hollies, you can still do your part to make the landscape wildlife friendly.
Norman Winter is executive director of the Columbus Botanical Garden, Columbus Ga., and is author of "Captivating Combinations Color and Style in the Garden."