Plant of the Week: December 13, 2018

When Lynn and I bought our first home in the Dallas area in December, 1970, nurseryman (and my friend!) Steve Dodd Sr. gave us a housewarming gift. It was a tree-form Nellie R. Stevens holly, and Steve told me, “This is one of the greatest new shrubs we’ve ever seen.” Coming from a former president of the Texas Association of Nurserymen (now Texas Nursery and Landscape Association) and a family of legendary nursery proportions, those words carried great weight. In fact, that plant came from the huge wholesale nursery owned by his brother Tom Dodd in Semmes, Alabama.

Steve was correct. This is a magnificent shrub, and it’s adapted to almost all of Texas. It grows in sun or shade, acidic or alkaline soils and without any major pest problem.

Photo taken in front of the First United Methodist Church in downtown McKinney this past Sunday. This is a semi-mature (figure that term out!) plant.

Untrimmed and given proper water and fertilizer, Nellie R. Stevens hollies grow to be 15 or 18 feet tall and 12 or 14 feet wide. With occasional and selective pruning (every three or four years), it can be maintained at 8 to 12 feet tall. If that’s still too tall, switch over to its smaller cousins such as Willowleaf holly.

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Nellie R. Stevens hollies bear multitudes of large red berries, and they hold them all winter (until migration of the cedar waxwings). It may take young plants a few years to start producing fruit, but once they do, they’re annual performers. And all plants will have berries. Unlike some hollies, such as yaupons and possumhaws, all Nellie R. Stevens have both male and female flower parts on the same plant, hence all bear fruit.

This spectacular specimen in front of the Addison City Hall is probably 30 years old. I took this photo before its lowest branches were removed to convert it into a tree-form plant. I loved this look, but it’s still beautiful as a tree.

There is a curious side story to Nellie R. Stevens hollies. This plant came from one seed collected from a Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta) at the United States National Arboretum in Washington D.C. by none other than Ms. Nellie R. Stevens in 1902. As it sprouted, she planted it in her Maplehurst Gardens in Oxford, Maryland. And there it grew for 50 years, until it was observed by nurseryman G.A. Van Lennep Jr. He collected cuttings, propagated them, named it (in honor of Ms. Stevens) and registered it in 1967. Had it not been for Van Lennep, we might have missed this great plant entirely.

The Sperry home landscape would be barren indeed if it weren’t for our Nellie R. Stevens hollies. 50 years after Steve Dodd’s kind gift, This is a great plant, and I’m proud to recommend it to you.

Many of the better nurseries now offer Nellie R. Stevens hollies already trained as trees. This was one at Covington’s in Rowlett a couple of years ago. Although this one sold quickly, Joe and his team often have tree types in stock.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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