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Plant Profiles

Nellie Stevens holly



Such shiny foliage, such large red berries!  No garden should be without this holly.  'Nellie R. Stevens' is an unusually vigorous cultivar that looks like English holly, a much more tender beauty that can be difficult to grow on this side of the Atlantic.




Unusual for hollies, the large red berries can be produced without a male pollinator.  But the crop is even bigger if you can provide Nellie's preferred mate, 'Edward J. Stevens'.


The stems and veins of the leaves, as well as the bark of first-year twigs, are lemon yellow.  The show is your reward for paying a close call on Nellie, not just tossing a casual glance her way from across the garden.  Older branches are the light gray of the trunk in the background.




See "Quirks and special cases" below for a strategy to maximize the display of both the berries and the twigs.



Here's how to grow this classy broadleaved shrub:

Latin Name

Ilex 'Nellie R. Stevens'

Common Name

Nellie Stevens holly


Aquifoliaceae, the Holly family.  Literally, the "wet leaf" family: Ilex aquifolium, English holly, has leaves that are so glossy they do, in fact, seem to be wet.

What kind of plant is it?

Broadleaved evergreen shrub.


Zones 6 - 9.


Pyramidal and upright; full to the ground.

Rate of Growth

Medium in Zone 6; fast in Zones 7 - 9.

Size in ten years

Because growth is faster in Zones 7 - 9, ten-year height there could be ten to fifteen feet or more, and the width six to ten feet.  In Zone 6, ten-year height is more likely to be eight to twelve feet, and the width five to seven feet.  Potentially over twenty feet tall, and in Zone 8 and 9 to thirty.



Grown for

its glossy dark-green foliage: Although not nearly as hardy as American holly, Ilex opaca, which is solidly Zone 5, 'Nellie R. Stevens' is the best choice throughout Zone 6 for holly with foliage that is, thrillingly, the size, color, and shininess of English holly, Ilex aquifolium, which isn't hardy colder than Zone 7.       


its bright berries.  The red berries are beautiful at close range, but don't show up from a distance: Holly flowers only start developing on wood that is in its second year of growth, and so the berries are somewhat hidden by that current year's growth.


its shelter for wildlife.  Nellie's mature size, well-branched growth, and dense prickly foliage makes the tree ideal year-round shelter for small animals.


its stormy-worthy nature.  As is typical for upright holly cultivars and species, 'Nellie R. Stevens' has strong wood, which make the tree impervious to snow and ice.


its comfort with pruning.  All hollies are extraordinarily responsive to pruning, and can produce new growth from even the oldest branches and the thickest trunks.  See "How to handle it: Another option—or two!" below for recommendations.


its lack of appeal for deer.  They eschew the stiff and prickly foliage, which would be painful to eat.

Flowering season

Early Summer: May in Rhode Island.  Holly flowers are small and white, and not really showy.

Color combinations

Nellie's foliage is a rich dark green—similar to the color of yews, in fact, which is why this holly also goes with absolutely everything.


The red berries are colorful but showy only at close range.

Partner plants

Because Nellie normally grows full to the ground, this isn't a plant you needs a groundcover.  The dark shiny foliage is so showy, and the dense and rigid habit so unwavering, that you can play against all of these traits dramatically by juxtaposing ornamental plants with lighter foliage, ferny foliage, or growth that is flexible and likely to sway in the breeze.  Ideal would be ornamental grasses, especially if they are variegated; as well as large ferns. 


Or you can comment on the holly from the other side of the aisle, by using plants with foliage that's much larger.  If at the front, consider hostas, tropicals, or rhubarbs.  If at the back, what about a deciduous magnolia, as long as it's not close enough to shade Nellie and cause her growth to thin?


I'm taking a third path: to establish a clematis near my Nellie, which I can lead into the holly and then let it explore the shrub at will.  'Perle 'd'Azur' has light blue flowers that would be especially bright when backed by the dark holly foliage; its mid-green leaves would show up well, too.


Yet another tactic is to provide contrast through foliage that is fuzzy.  This creates two different levels of contrast:  The velvety light-absorbing texture of the fuzzy leaves, as well as their color, which is often unusually light because the fuzz is made up of silvery hairs.  Silver-leaved fountain buddleia and silver-leaved willow are two possibilities.  The foliage of 'Quicksilver' elaeagnus is even brighter—it's an almost otherworldly aluminum-white—but the color is from minute scales, not hairs.  It would also be a strong contrast with Nellie. 

Where to use it in your garden

Nellie grows almost as large as American holly, so has similar uses as large-scale screening, either growing free-range or as a clipped hedge.  The tree's growth is so strong that the hedge can be as high as you can manage.


The large red berries aren't visible enough at longer range to affect placement as the focus of a vista; it's the tree's broadly-conical shape, gorgeous foliage, and overall impression of heavy solidity that will guide you.  Hollies of all sorts are very effective as single-cultivar groupings and, with the tree-sized types such as 'Nellie R. Stevens', groves.  Plant fifteen feet apart so that the conical tops of the trees are always distinct even as the bottom two-thirds grow together.  A mature grove of just three is significant enough to command its own acre of meadow; a grove of five would be more substantial still, especially if planted twenty feet apart, and could balance a weeping beech that was in charge of the adjacent acre.


'Nellie R. Stevens' has dignity and endurance, but it is so solid a performer in Zone 7 - 9 that it has become too popular to be truly a star among large-scale horticulture.  (In Zone 6, the shrub is much less often seen, so can, indeed, be a focal excitement.)  Its best use is to be massed as the backdrop for some other plant that truly is a diva:  a sensational (and huge) Japanese maple, say, underplanted with huge hostas.  A  group of gold-leaved redbuds, Cercis canadensis 'Hearts of Gold', underplanted with scilla.  A trio of variegated tree angelicas, Aralia elata 'Silver Umbrellas', underplanted with prostrate plum yews, Cephalotaxus harringtonia 'Prostrata'.


Full sun to part shade, any reasonable soil.  Faster in full sun and rich well-draining soil, although holly is more forgiving of moister and slower-draining soil than is usual for evergreens.

How to handle it: The Basics

Hollies handle Winter better and better as they get larger.  'Nellie R. Stevens' will succeed well in southern New England, and even, in protected locations near the coast, into southern Maine.  North of New York City, this holly appreciates your thoughtfulness in siting and care:  Plant only in the Spring, and in locations with good drainage.  In Zones 7 - 9, Nellie can be planted in Spring or Fall.


"Full sun" doesn't mean being exposed to all possible Winter blasts.  Can there be large evergreens to the north?  Your house to the east?  Good winter drainage, as ever, is very helpful to hardiness, especially for any plant with evergreen leaves.  A thick but loose Fall mulching with leaves and shredded bark is also a good idea.  In Zone 6, spray with antidessicant the first few Falls.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

'Nellie R. Stevens' makes a peerless hedge, not least because the growth is impervious to deer as well as ice and snow.  Also, because hollies handle pruning so well, the hedge can be kept tight at any size—or, if you forgot to prune for twenty years, you could "prune" with a chain saw to regrow the hedge from the ground up.


Site holly hedges in full sun: You want growth to be as vigorous as possible, and you want the holly to respond to pruning quickly and enthusiastically.  Full sun is the key.


In Zones 7 - 9, start with plants of modest or even small size.  It's more important to plant close together, so buy more-but-smaller plants, not fewer-but-taller ones.  Ideally, plant these youngsters eighteen to twenty-four inches apart in early Spring.  In Zone 6, plants under two or three feet tall could get severe Winter damage without strenuous protection of antidessicant or even a burlap wind screen.  Better to start with individuals that are at least four feet tall, and be sure to spray with antidessicant in late Fall until the shrubs are six feet tall.  If you've planted in congenial soil and exposure, that will only take two years.


If the need for quick screening is serious—and, goodness knows, that happens—plant as large plants as you can afford, as close together as you can maneuver them.  If possible, dig a trench for the plants instead of individual holes, and line the plants up ball-to-ball; it's fine to prune side branches so you can plant closer.  It's essential to plant such an instant hedge in full sun.


Holly that is balled-and-burlapped must be dug with a large ball, and that means a heavy ball.  Plants that are five feet and taller are remarkably heavy, and can be difficult or impossible to handle without heavy equipment and a crew.  Further, planting should disturb the root ball minimally, all the more reason to have all possible assistance and power equipment at the ready.  Large hollies are expensive; don't take chances with a slip-shod installation.


Although Nellie's foliage is less spiny than some, the leaves can stil be painful in unexpected encounters.  Fortunately, the preferred seasons to plant—early Spring and mid-Fall—are also when you'll be wearing pants instead of shorts, and heavy long-sleeved shirts.  If you plant in the Fall, spray with antidessicant that season.


Let newly-planted holly hedges grow free-range for a year.  Early the next Spring, or even in late Winter, begin training your plants into a hedge.


If you're gardening in Zone 7 - 9 and can have safely planted small-sized hollies, go down the row and cut off the top half of the plant.  This takes conviction, true, and is best done quickly, before you lose it.  The goal is to encourage the young hollies to branch out as close to the ground as possible.  Let the hedge grow on its own the rest of the year.  The next Spring, just prune off the tips of the stems; let the hedge grow the rest of the year.  Don't be in a rush to have a tall hedge; as fervently and as long as you can, hold to the belief that a fat and bushy hedge is the better achievement.  Height will happen eventually no matter what you do.


For the first five or ten years of you and your hedge's life together, prune only in early Spring.  Your young holly plants need all of their foliage about them as Winter comes on; Fall pruning inevitably makes the hollies less dense and more open, literally, to Winter-kill.


As the hedge approaches its desired mature dimension, you can prune in mid-to-late Fall or in early Spring.  The hollies will be large enough to be fully Winter-hardy regardless of the Fall pruning, which also gives the hedge a sharp outline that's held right through Winter until growth resumes in mid-Spring.


If you planted a "desperation" hedge of hollies that were as tall as you right from the start, you can begin pruning in Fall the second or third year after planting.

Quirks or special cases

If you truly love to prune, here's how you can grow a specimen of 'Nellie R. Stevens' that flaunts her colorful twigs and berries both.  


Let the shrub grow to six or seven feet tall—not much taller than you can reach comfortably.  Late the following Winter, screw up your courage and prune every single branch back to its lowest leaf buds.  Yes, your Nellie will look like a malingering broomstick, but will soon sprout new and yellow-barked shoots from head to toe.  Let them grow in peace for the rest of that year; you'll have a display of yellow twigs and deep-green foliage all that Winter.  There will be no berries.


Their second season, this original crop of new shoots will flower in May and be in berry by Fall, while also growing from their tips that season's new and yellow-barked twigs.  So now you have both yellow twigs and berries to work with, although the twigs are more or less hiding the berries.  Enjoy the display of yellow twigs all Fall.  Then, early in the New Year (or later in December, to use for the holidays), cut them all off, to better display the red berries.


In Spring, all of those tip-pruned branches will send out another crop of twigs.  Let them grow the rest of that year and into the second, so they flower that second Spring, grow the current-year's yellow twigs all Summer, and berry on the previous year's growth that Fall.  Once again, you'll have a display of yellow twigs that more or less hides the display of red berries.   As before, in December or January, reveal the berries by cutting off the yellow twigs.


Continue to clip off the yellow twigs, then, every other December or early January.  Because this first-year growth is slender, if you cut just above a leaf the little stub won't show.  


After four or five such cycles of every-other-year pruning, you'll have created a Nellie with remarkably dense growth.  She'll bear a heavy crop of berries that, after you remove the yellow twigs around the turn of every other New Year, will be displayed right at the surface.


Hollies can be troubled by all kinds of pests and diseases, but strong-growing plants are much less susceptible.  Check with local nurseries as well as your local USDA Cooperative Extension Service Office to see what holly cultivars they recommend for your locale.


If you have a holly hedge, you'll also need to weed under it—which, alas, isn't something that you can put off until the cold months.  Weeds need to be pulled in the moment, and certainly before they go to seed.  Weeding a holly hedge in the liquid heat of July, August, or September weather is a drag, I agree.  Especially when you need to wear long sleeves so you can reach right into the hollies as you yank and swear.  You'll also need to wear long pants, because you'll be weeding under the hollies, which means that you'll need to be kneeling.  Holly leaves are just as painful when they pierce the skin in your knees.


There are about a thousand cultivars just of Ilex opaca, plus many hundreds more of the dozens of other holly species.  They vary in berry size, profusion, and color; leaf size, color, degree of glossiness, and spinyness; hardiness; and habit, which can be upright, wider, dwarfer, or denser.  Hollies of all kinds accept pruning easily, so in addition to free-standing, free-range growth, you can have terrific hedges of them.


'Buttercup' and 'Whoa Nellie' are yellow sports of 'Nellie R. Stevens'.  'Buttercup' has leaves with yellow edges; those of 'Whoa Nellie' are solid gold.  Wow, would I love to grow either one, even if it meant growing a small plant in a container for years, overwintered in the greenhouse, until it was large enough to risk planting it out in the garden. 2015 update: This was my year to begin growing 'Whoa Nellie'.  Hooray!


Oh yes:  Nellie is one of the rare hollies that can produce berries all by herself, but the crop is larger if you can plant the pollinator, 'Edward J. Stevens'.  Most other hollies are separately-sexed, you'll need to plant an appropriate male cultivar of that particular species so your female will develop a respectable crop of berries.


On-line and, where solidly hardy, at retailers.


By cuttings that are started in the Fall.

Native habitat

Ilex 'Nellie R. Stevens'is believed to be a hybrid between Ilex cornuta, native to China and Korea, and Ilex aquifolium, native to Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia.  It was released in Maryland in 1954.

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