Thursday, December 15, 2016

Who's the Father?

Something I don't know about is going on in my garden. Because the proof is right here:

Those are holly berries on my Ilex opaca. Very festive at this time of year.

As I have written about before, and as many know, holly plants are dioecious, meaning plants are either male or female and you need one of each to fertilize the flowers and produce fruit.

Obviously my American holly tree is a female. What I don't know is where the male holly is -- he has to be nearby somewhere, right? But it's not like American holly trees are scattered about in the woods, and no one I know in the area is growing an American holly, much less a male one.

It doesn't have to be an Ilex opaca for fertilization to happen. Many homes have ornamental holly shrubs around and I grow Ilex verticillata, winterberry holly, so any of those other varieties could be providing the pollen that the bees bring to this tree.

They have to all bloom together, though, so the flowering timing has to be just right. I wonder what variety is pollinating this tree.

I did plant a male Ilex opaca in the meadow a few years ago just for the purpose. It was tiny, about six inches high, and it died. I planted another and it too is a twig, barely leafing out at all. I never saw flowers, it doesn't seem to be thriving and it can't possibly be the male contributor to the berries on this holly.

So some other holly is the father. I did read that like varieties will produce a much more prolific display of berries. If a male Ilex opaca was nearby and big enough to produce a lot of flowers, it could be that my female tree would be absolutely covered in red jewels at Christmas.

Instead, it has a fair amount of red berries, but you have to look to see them. Sparkly white snow would help highlight them, just as it does for the winterberry hollies.

The tree itself is just a few years old and needs to fill out, but I'm pleased with how it is growing. It's doing well, gaining size and getting a little bit of shape.

It's a long way from the specimen I saw years ago at Conn College in summer, though. That one was a beautiful dense shape, sitting in a pool of light in an opening in a forest. I came on it unexpectedly as I walked through the woods. It was a magical sight.

Mine will never be branched to the ground like that. But as it fills out I am hoping it starts to look as dense as the mature specimen. It's certainly as green and shiny.

But wouldn't my holly be great covered all over in red berries -- many, many more than what it has now from an unknown source of questionable parentage?

Who exactly is the father, anyway?


  1. Mine is somewhere around 6 years old and it looks like a squashed dumpling. It is loaded with berries this year. I have no idea what is the daddy.

    1. I can't imagine an American holly that looks like a squashed dumpling!

  2. I planted a holly this year. The nursery staff says they incorporate both into a single plant now so that every one can bear fruit by itself.

    1. I didn't know that! Maybe mine is self fertile after all.