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American Holly: Mary Nell




Mary Nell Holly
Ilex x 'Mary Nell'

Photo: Dr. Robert Polomski

With the holiday season upon us, I see the widespread popularity of Fraser firs, American hollies and poinsettias. Granted, each one of them has historical importance. However, when it comes to joining the rest of our landscape plants, only consider American holly (Ilex opaca). Poinsettias won’t overwinter outdoors in our region, and Fraser fir will languish at lower altitudes east of the North Carolina mountains.
That’s why I’m so fond of Mary Nell holly: we can appreciate its beauty year-round. While Mary Nell lacks needles, it has spiny leaves like American holly, but that’s where the similarity ends. Mary Nell possesses dark green, glossy leaves with an array of symmetrical spines along the margins. The polished leaves feel like plastic, and when they reflect the sun’s rays, you succumb to the illusion that Mary Nell cannot be real.
In addition to the spectacular leaves, Mary Nell produces a beautiful display of white flowers in the Spring that attract an assortment of pollinators. The heavy clusters of red berries in the Fall draw attention from people, birds, and other wildlife.
The piece de resistance of Mary Nell is her dense, Christmas tree-like pyramidal form. During her formative years, Mary Nell needs some primping to reduce or remove the random wayward branches that spring up like cowlicks. Eventually, as this holly matures to a height of 15 to 20 ft. with a 10 ft. spread, less pruning will be necessary to maintain its tight, symmetrical form.
For full sun to part shade, consider using Mary Nell in a privacy screen or hedge. I like to see Mary Nell as a stand-alone specimen or accent plant that draws admiring looks year-round.