A Gardening Journal

Beehive holly

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'Beehive' holly is so easy-going.  You can let it grow on its own, forever.  Or you can go at it with your pruners.  I've got four 'Beehives', and it's time to shape them to be even more compact than they are naturally.

 

The small and profuse leaves mean that 'Beehive' holly is dense and green no matter how much I prune off. 

 

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Better yet, the bush is in-leaf right to the core. 

 

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No matter how deeply I cut, there's more foliage deeper still.

 

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I'm shaping my Beehives into simple topiary—a ball of foliage atop a gentle pyramid.  I've already cut off all of the side branches of the bush that didn't say "Pyramid" to me. 

 

Now it's time to stake the remaining central branch, which is what I'll pinch and train into the pyramid's ball.  'Beehive' holly is so dense and branchy that I don't need to tie the branch to the stake with much authority. 

 

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All the branches and foliage, so thick even at the center of the bush, hold it securely.

 

With the center branch brought to the vertical, my pyramid is, literally, in better shape.

 

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Just before growth resumes next Spring, I'll begin pruning the smaller twigs, to encourage new growth that will fill out the four sides of the pyramid, let alone the round ball of growth at the top.

 

Here's how to grow this easy and versatile holly:


Latin Name

Ilex crenata 'Beehive'

Common Name

Beehive holly

Family

Aquifoliaceae, the Holly family.

What kind of plant is it?

Broad-leaved evergreen shrub.

Hardiness

Zones 6 - 8; sometimes listed as Zone 5

Habit

Mounding, full to the ground, wider than tall.

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

Five feet across and three feet tall; not much bigger at maturity.

Texture

Dense and rigid, but not with a "tight surface".  Unlike, say, boxwood, whose foliage crowds the outer extent of growth, creating a uniform "paving" of foliage and leaving a largely leafless and open-branched interior, Ilex crenata always maintains a deeper texture.  Both bushes appear similarly dense at a glance, but the density of box is comparatively superficial.  Ilex crenata is dense through-and-through. 

Grown for

its foliage:  Narrow dark-green leaves crowd the branches, and are reliably evergreen down into Zone 5. 

 

its habit: The squat shape and rigid growth suggest a beehive both in overall shape.  The bush's through-and-through leafiness suggests a busy-as-a-bee pattern of growth, too.  'Beehive' doesn't achieve its mass through quick growth and sparse foliage; the bulk is built up over years, with many branches ramifying into countless small twigs, and each bearing scores of the small leaves.  By comparison, a similarly-sized Hypericum achieves the same overall size in one season, and with, maybe, one percent as many twigs and leaves.

Flowering season

Spring, but holly flowers are small and not showy.  'Beehive' is a female, so will also bear black berries, but they aren't showy, either.

Color combinations

Ilex crenata 'Beehive' brings only dark green to the garden, so it goes with all other colors. 

Partner plants

If allowed to grow free-range, 'Beehive' has great natural dignity and integrity; it should be at the front of plantings so that its full-to-the-ground habit isn't compromised.  You could, though, front it with really low groundcovers, but choose ones with comparatively large foliage to contrast with the small 'Beehive' leaves.  European ginger, Asarum europaeum, grows only inches high, but has leaves nearly two inches across.  Ajuga would be terrific, too.  Seersucker sedge, Carex plantaginea, makes a weed-proof groundcover out of its relaxed clumps of inch-wide leaves six to eight inches long.  It, too, would be a great "fronter."


Vining groundcovers (ivy, vinca, creeping jenny) could be frustrating, in that they'd climb up into the holly, cascading out randomly and, potentially, overwhelming it.  Worse, the bush's growth is so rigid that it would be awkward to weed then out from underneath it, too. 

 

Try not to have taller plants too close to 'Beehive' at the sides or the back, though, lest you shade out sections of its otherwise uniformly-full form.  As long as they're at a respectful distance, leaves that are spearlike or large and colorful would be great; 'Beehive' has leaves that are so small and narrow that it could "out-fern" almost any ferny-leaved neighbors.  Instead, consider iris, tropicals, hostas, large-leaved rhododendrons, and, into Zone 7, mahonias, aucubas, and camellias. 

Where to use it in your garden

At the front of beds, for year-round anchoring and repetition thanks to its uniform mounding habit.

 

As a low hedge; like all hollies, 'Beehive' is comfortable with pruning, whether it's regular or occasional, mild or drastic. 

 

As small-size topiary, where its small leaves and eagerness to branch would make a close-textured and specifically-shaped form possible.

Culture

Any decent soil, in full sun to light shade.  If the soil can be acid and humus-rich—like you'd provide for your best rhododendrons and azaleas—so much the better.  Mulch is always appreciated, especially to lessen freeze-thaw temperature swings in the Winter.

How to handle it: The Basics

Unless you're gardening in Zone 7, plant 'Beehive' only in the Spring.  Mulch well, and water if needed so the bush gets through its first Summer without drought stress. 

 

If you're establishing 'Beehive' in the colder end of Zone 6, and even into Zone 5, enhance its hardiness by planting only where it has excellent Winter drainage (on a slope, no matter how slight), and where it has some buffering from the wind.  Larger shrubs nearby—deciduous or evergreen—are a help, as is any nearby building or fence.  Even so, spray the bush with antidessicant the first Winter. 

 

If possible, allow for the bush's mature size in your choice of siting, then you'll never have to prune 'Beehive'.  If there is any tip-damage by the end of Winter, prune that off in early Spring.  Holly usually recovers strongly from Winter damage; it doesn't need to be pruned, but it sure seems to like it.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

If you're planting 'Beehive' as a hedge, planting every two feet is fine.  'Beehive' will, nearly always, be container-grown, so establishes successfully at any size available.  Don't worry about buying large plants, though; small ones will grow faster than you think, and in three years will look no different than the large ones.  You're pruning the plants into a hedge, remember, so the larger the plants are at planting, the sooner you'll probably have to start your pruning. 

 

Let the hedge-plants grow on their own for a full year, even two, before you start pruning.  In colder Zone 6 and into Zone 5, prune only in early Spring, before growth begins; you'll cut off any Winter kill, as well as give the bushes the most time to produce new growth and harden it off before the next Winter.  If you prune in the Fall, the bush won't get the extra bit of Winter protection that would be provided to the plants' interior by the foliage and small branches you'll be pruning off the exterior.  In warmer Zone 6 and into Zone 7, you can prune in late Fall or in Spring. 

Quirks or special cases

You could grow 'Beehive' into small-scale topiary.  Simple shapes are always easiest; a pyramid with a ball on top, say.  Remember that the bush isn't going to get more than three or four feet tall, so plan the size of your topiary accordingly.

 

Let the bush grow free-range for a couple of seasons, and then, in Spring, prune off any branches and even major limbs that are outside the mature dimensions of the topiary.  Holly sprouts reliably even from its thickest stumps, so your cuts will be covered by that season's growth. 

 

If you're trying to create a ball, it's best to select a limb that's already growing fairly upright, and stake it securely.  Then you can pinch the top and clip the side growth gently each Spring to help the ball fill out as a separate element from any shape you're forming below it, such as the pyramid.  This is a better strategy than having the ball be a clipped continuation of multi-stemmed growth below, which would make it more susceptible to fracturing as a result of heavy snow or ice. 

 

Go over the topiary in Spring to clip out any Winter damage and, if necessary, tie-in any Winter-splayed branches.  After the topiary is more mature (and therefore a bit hardier), you can also do light pruning in late Fall, after there's no chance of encouraging new growth that would have no time to harden off before Winter.  Do any "structural" pruning only in the Spring, otherwise you'll have to look all Winter long at the bare stumps of the limbs you just pruned.

Downsides

Although Ilex crenata itself is impressively shade-tolerant, the growth in lower light is open and, often, bare from the waist down.  'Beehive' is so dense, and is so attractive because of it, that it's not suited for much shade; it needs plenty of sun—ideally full sun—to maintain its natural habit. 

Variants

Japanese holly is one of the most important broadleaved evergreens for gardens in Zones 5, 6, and 7.  It was introduced to America during the Civil War and was cultivated in Japan for who-knows-how-many centuries before that.  No surprise, then, that across both cultures, there are many cultivars already—several hundred—and, always, more on the way.  Extending hardiness more and more reliably to the cold end of Zone 5 has long been a priority, and there are more than a few cultivars already that are, indeed, Zone 5.  Ask local nurseries which plants are particularly hardy where you garden.

 

Ilex crenata habit can be broad and flat-topped, narrow and upright, vase-shaped, wide and mounding, or fairly round.  Mature size can range from barely a foot in any direction to fifteen feet tall and twenty feet wide. Leaves can be smaller, narrower, wider, or longer.  With the exception of a few variegates and gold-leaved cultivars, the foliage is a dignified dark green—much darker than Ilex crenata's counterpart in all of these diversities, boxwood, whose leaves are noticeably lighter green.  Berries are black and not showy, except in a very few cultivars with yellow or white berries.  Even so, the berries are a secondary consideration; mature size, hardiness, and habit will always be primary.  

 

It would be difficult to have a garden without at least one cultivar of Japanese holly, and even modest gardens might have several.  So far, my Ilex crenata collection is skimpy indeed: Just six cultivars.  That, clearly, isn't sufficient! 

Availability

On-line and at destination retailers.

Propagation

By cuttings. 

Native habitat

Ilex crenata is native to Japan.

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