Kruckeberg Plant of the Month

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Kruckeberg Botanic Garden Plant of the Month: Holly osmanthus (Osmanthus heterophyllus)  
By Sarah Baker, Kruckeberg Garden Directror
Special to the ShorelineAreaNews
 English Holly (Ilex aquifolium), with its glossy evergreen leaves and bright red berries, has been valued since ancient times for its beauty during the winter season. It became part of Solstice and Christmas celebrations, and as these traditions spread around the world holly maintained its prominence as a part of holiday décor. 
 
Holly may be a valued holiday tradition, but ecologically it’s a bit of a tragedy. Our Pacific Northwest climate is similar to its native range which allows it to thrive in our area. Birds eat the plentiful fruits, spreading them to our native forests and forest remnants in urban areas. The result is that English holly is now frequently found where it shouldn’t be; naturalizing in Puget Sound lowland forests.
 

If you have holly in your garden, consider a great alternative: Osmanthus heterophyllus. Also known as false holly or tea olive, osmanthus is a well-behaved holly look-a-like that generally stays where it’s planted. The leaves of this plant are so holly-like that the two plants are often confused. Unlike holly, however, osmanthus has noticeable and fragrant flowers that bloom in the late fall when little else does. This unusual timing means that the flowers are appreciated by hummingbirds, everyone’s favorite garden visitor. Dark blue/black fruits follow the flowers. 
Photo by Sten Porse
 

This tough and dependable shrub thrives at the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden with little or no care. It is drought tolerant, thrives in our shady woodland gardens, and works well as a screen along fences. We let it grow in its natural shape, though osmanthus responds well to heavy pruning and is a popular hedge plant. It grows at a moderate pace, eventually reaching a height of 8-10 feet.
Photo by wakanmuri 


It can be hard to replace a valued but villainous plant in your landscape. However, there are many great alternatives available when replacing English holly. Besides osmanthus, these include: 
 
• Tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) – This tough native shrub lacks the robust shape of English holly, but has a similarly shaped and spiny evergreen leaf. In the spring it is covered with yellow flowers that form copious blue berries in late summer. 

Photo by nautical2k
 
• Hybrid hollies – Cultivars of the hybrid holly Ilex x meserveae are non-invasive, with lovely holly foliage and lots of red berries. However, because male and female flowers are on separate plants you must plant a plant of each gender to get berries. Thus, the cultivars have names like ‘Blue Boy’ and ‘Blue Girl’, ‘Blue Prince’ and ‘Blue Princess,’ and ‘China Girl’ and ‘China Boy’ that denote the plant’s gender.

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