Michigan Holly

ilex-verticillata-berries.jpgIlex verticillata is a deciduous holly that goes by many common names.  We call it Michigan holly, or winter berry. They say it is fairly easy to grow, but my my experience was not that successful.  It is easy to spot when Michigan holly is thriving.  The branches are loaded with dense clusters of bright red berries that are visible from a long ways away.  They ask for a soil that is fairly moisture retentive, even swampy. There are newish cultivars that have especially bright red berries. Winter Red is a recommended cultivar for our zone.  It is a strong growing mult stemmed shrub that matures to 8 or 9 feet tall.

Michigan-holly.jpgThe berries make it worth growing.  But if you do not have space for such a large shrub, growers harvest and sell bunches of the berried branches in late fall.  They are beautiful in fresh holiday arrangements that only need last for a week or two.  Indoors, the berries will eventually rot and drop from house heat.  Outdoors, they are longer lasting. Up until a few years ago, I almost always opted for faux berries in winter pots.  Though the color of a berry pick cannot begin to approximate the color of the real thing, they could be counted on to last the whole winter.  Once we started spraying our winter berry with Vapor Gard, our success improved dramatically.  The berries stayed put, and stayed plump well into February. Vapor Gard is a professional grade anti desiccant which is only available in a gallon concentrate. Premixed wilt pruf in a spray bottle will help too.  Be sure to soak the berries when there is no threat of rain, and let them dry.

Michigan holly (2)A client for whom the holiday isn’t right without winter berry branches reports that in mid to late January, the birds discover the berries.  One by one, they begin to disappear. The birds raiding the berries is a treasured part of his holiday experience.

Michigan holly (3)berried holiday containers

Michigan holly (4)winter berry

Michigan holly (6)This container has 6 bunches of Michigan holly in it.  Bunches available at our farmer’s market come bunched together with a rubber band.  We do not take the bunches apart- this disturbs too many berries.  A bamboo stick inserted into the bottom of the bunch is what goes in the foam in the container. Michigan holly is beautiful, but it needs to be handled with care.

Michigan holly (7)Red berries in a lighted container will look like fire when the daylight wanes.

fierySee what I mean?


The Glamorous Bits

I had a comment some days ago from a reader named Carol.  She wondered if I could talk about some ideas for adding some glamorous bits to winter containers.  Ilex verticillata, or Michigan holly, is my first choice for a glamorous addition to a winter container or garland.  That said, I find the berries on the holly will wither and fall like crazy, unless they are treated with Vaporguard.  Vaporguard is an antidessicant, much stronger and more effective than Wiltpruf.  I have some first hand experience with this.  Holly we sprayed with vaporguard was effective on those berries through February of last year.   

Without an antidessicant spray, holly berries will drop, and drop early.  These orange holly berries are new to me; we sprayed them upon delivery.  Paired with red bud pussy willow, there is a lot going on here visually.  The color is beautiful.  If you live in Michigan, you know that our winter color palette is about grey, more grey, and a dry brown.  This color is juicy, and saturated.  Glamorous.  Crabapples can fruit heavily, but even the “fruit persistent” varieites will drop, or be raided by birds early in the winter.  I would recommend seeking a little glam from other sources.  


Rob collects materials, and takes them outside to look at them.  He may revise his choices 5 times, before he commits to anything.  The big idea here-hold all of your materials in your arms, and decide if you are crazy about what you see.  If a combination seems to fall flat, keep looking. 

Rob finally decided on the following-the orange berries and bleached leaves contrast dramatically. Breathtaking, this.  The tall bleached sticks strongly contrast in form with the grey branched hackberry stems.  The combination of colors and forms here is truly beautiful.  


 This combination of materials lit from within by a string of garland lights-garden evening wear.  Garland lights?  We stock strands of lights that have 300 bulbs set in a 17 foot length.  This makes for lots of fire power, and not so much cord.  This is my light string of choice for winter containers.   For the holiday or winter season, turn up the heat.  Make a plan to light up the night.  It may be your most glamorous gesture comes at night.  I encourage all of my clients to light their winter pots, and keep the lights on all winter.  Why not?  That light is cheery, hopeful- dramatic.      

I am having a milkweed seed pod year-that grey and honey brown coloration is beautiful; the shapes of the pods on the stems-even more beautiful.  Were I to glam up these dry stems, I might choose platinum branches.  These are birch branches, sprayed a subtle silvery grey.  These branches can add a little sparkle to a milkweed winter arrangement. 

Faux red berries-every gardener hates them.  Until they take them outdoors.  Nested into a centerpiece of branches, they are jewel-like.  No bird will make off with them.  No winter storm will destroy them.  Make no mistake-faux berry stems look their age at the end of the winter season.  They age, as the winter goes on.  This aging is a good look.  They look so much more natural, in that dulled-down state.  But over the holidays to come, they sparkle.  Bright red at the holiday-everyone notices.  

These faux white berries are spaced sparsely on the branches-they have a natural look.  From a distance, they are entirely believable.  Each stem is individually wired.  Move them around.  To insert a branched faux stem into an arrangement without putting your hand to arranging each arm is what makes them look fake, and out of place.  Arrange those faux stems.  

These white berry stems make no effort to copy any real berry stems-but I still like them.  They look great in contemporary arrangements.  They add scale to a more sparse berry stem.  Working several stems together that are the same color can be very effective.  Effective?  Any expression that brings a smile to your face, or warms your heart-effective.  Winter sustenance-decide how you plan to represent this. 

Faux berry stems with sparkling crystal bits can add considerable glamour to you winter arrangements.  The degree to which you want to dress up-this is up to you.  If what the garden leaves behind is enough, there are materials.  If materials suitable for a cocktail party is enough-there are other materials. If a floor length sequinned gown is your idea of celebrating the holiday and winter, there are materials out there.  The materials are out there, for you to choose.  Choose.