By: Brenda Bolton, Mobile County Master Gardener www.mobilecountymastergardeners.org
Shrouded in the darkness of shorter days, the skeletal winter landscape cries out for evergreens. Long a symbol of good luck, health, and even immortality, hollies shine in winter, sharing center stage with the holiday firs. The ancient Romans used holly in their pagan Saturnalia rituals, as it was sacred to the god Saturn. Druids recognized a Holly King in their observances, and later, the Christian legend of King Arthur gave us the Green Knight carrying a holly branch.
With a history like this, it’s no wonder that beautiful evergreens continue to be the preferred choice to anchor our winter landscapes. Before selecting your evergreens, assess the conditions in your yard, such as sun and shade, dry or moist, acid or alkaline soils (get a soil test kit from the Extension office), and find varieties that are a good fit.
The big tree trio is surely comprised of the oak, magnolia, and conifer. Live oak, Quercus virginiana, is the most beautiful of trees: storm strong, long lived, drought tolerant, providing both food and protection to wildlife, and -- given its benefits -- relatively mess free, since the dropped leaves are small and can be collected for the best free mulch you will find. If I could have just one tree in my life, it would be the live oak. For a more manageably-sized oak with almost all the qualities as the live oak, the sand live oak, Quercus geminata, is a great choice. Another favorite large evergreen is the southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, reaching 60-80 feet tall and about 30 feet wide. There are several smaller versions of the magnolia, one of which is mentioned below. Rounding out the traditional evergreen trio is a conifer such as longleaf pine, Pinus palustris; slash pine, Pinus eliottii; red cedar, Juniperus silicicola/virginiana, and white cedar, Chamaecy paris thyoides. Nothing evokes crisp winter days like the fragrance of pine and cedar.
The American holly, Ilex opaca, leads the medium-sized tree group, but there are many options. Give hollies ample sunlight for an easy and beautiful winter evergreen, with the bonus of red berries. The Ilex group offers a wide range of options, from the lusterleaf holly, Ilex latifolia, to the Savannah holly, Ilex x attenuata ‘Savannah.’ The native Dahoon holly, Ilex cassine, is suited to sunny, moist locations, but plant both male and female to get red berries. The smaller sized Teddy Bear magnolia is a good medium tree option, offering a 20-foot tall and 12-15-foot-wide pyramidal canopy with the same deep green leaves, soft velvet brown backs and white blooms through the summer.
Favorites among the small evergreen trees, or tree-form large shrubs, are the red berry trees, such as the Burford holly, Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii,’ and other varieties in the 15-20-foot range, like Nellie R. Stevens holly, Ilex x ‘Nellie R Stevens.’ A good tree-form shrub for winter’s red berries is our native weeping yaupon holly, Ilex vomitoria f. pendula, with its unique twisted and draping form. A few other native trees in the 15-20-foot range include the native wax myrtle, Myrica cerifera, with its wide vase-shaped crown and aromatic leaves; bay tree, Laurus nobilis; and even fruit bearing trees such as the loquat, Eriobotrya japonica.
Perhaps the most beautiful small anchor tree for the home landscape is the camellia, and as a bonus it tolerates some shade. Choose a fast-growing Camellia sasanqua for sunnier spots, or the slower but equally beautiful Camellia japonica, or even better, some of each to extend your bloom season. Whatever your choices, you will be rewarded with fall to late winter blooms that will compete with your decorated “tannenbaum.”
Any home landscape needs the small evergreen shrubs that serve as foundation, bed liner, and even potted plantings. One of the best all-around dwarf evergreens is the native yaupon holly, Oscar Gray. Hollies shine in this size, too, and there are several good choices such as the dwarf soft touch holly, Ilex crenata ‘Soft Touch.’ Traditional boxwood, Buxus, fell prey to blight disease some years back, so I would avoid a big investment in boxwood, but a potted Little Missy variety, B. microphylla 'Little Missy,' which has good blight resistance, could accentuate a spot in the landscape. All of these options respond well to trimming and shaping, so you can experiment with those lovely topiary forms you see in the magazines. For blooms, add one of the many dwarfed evergreen azalea varieties.
New evergreen varieties enter the market endlessly, but you can’t go wrong with these time-tested choices, and you will be rewarded with a living landscape until spring rouses the sleepy-headed deciduous plants.