Plant of the Week
Nellie R. Stevens Holly
Latin: Ilex x Nellie R. Stevens
Gardens and the plants in them are ephemeral. Here today, gone tomorrow. But
sometimes fate intervenes, and new and interesting plants are saved and passed
on to future generations.
Nellie R. Stevens holly is such a plant. It was almost ripped out to make way
for a garden expansion but was saved by a happy series of events that eventually
propelled it into the spotlight as one of the most popular large hollies for
Nellie R. is the result of a chance interspecific cross between the Chinese
holly (Ilex cornuta) and English holly (I. aquifolium). Though the
bees were responsible for the pollen dabbing, it was a schoolmarm named Nellie
R. Stevens (1866-1942) from Oxford, Md., who filched a few berries on a visit to
the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. This fateful trip was in the fall of
1900, but the plant was not known outside the family until 1952 when Nellie’s
niece decided it was time to remodel the garden.
Nellie R. Stevens holly is a big, pyramidal plant capable of reaching 25 feet
high when mature. It has dark green, 2½-inch long foliage with two or three
blunt spines on each side of the leaf. In the fall, it has a respectable display
of red, pea-sized berries.
Berry set appears to be parthenocarpically - berries without the benefit of
male pollination. This trait is common in Chinese hollies but not in the English
holly parent. A male clone, ‘Edward J. Stevens’ was also named from the seeds
Miss Nellie planted, but the male form is seldom seen in the nursery trade and
does not seem to be critical for berry set. Edward J. was Miss Nellie’s father.
The holly was saved because Eunice Highley, Miss Nellie’s niece and owner of
the home where she planted the holly seeds, attended a meeting of the Talbot
County Garden Club where the program just happened to be on hollies. The
speaker, Gus Van Lennep of nearby St. Michael, MD, was invited to come see the
hollies and try to identify them. He couldn’t, and when experts with the America
Holly Society couldn’t either, they realized they had a new kind of plant on
Highley finally decided to preserve the plants, and the annual meeting of the
Holly Society met there in 2000 to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of the
seeds being planted.
The story of the Nellie R. Stevens holly is told in an interesting book
entitled Legends of the Gardens, but subtitled "Who in the World is
Nellie Stevens?" This delightful little book, authored by Linda Copeland and
Allan Armitage and published in 2001 by Wings Publishers in Atlanta, Ga, tells
the personal stories associated with a number of garden plants that were
christened with the names of real gardeners.
Just as gardens are ephemeral, so are the stories of how new plants are
discovered and developed. By their very nature, gardens are personal spaces
preserving and displaying all manner of plants. The stories associated with the
plants a gardener chooses to grow, especially if they have a personal connection
to the gardener, are one of the best features of any garden.
The popularity of Nellie R. Stevens holly is due to its wide adaptability and
ease of growth. It grows in sun or light shade where it doesn’t flinch at poor
soils, drought or general neglect. Nellie R. is useful for screening or can be
used as a stand-alone specimen.
A planting on the U of A campus in Fayetteville is now eight years old and
plants are 8 feet tall and developing the squatty, but upright, look they
display. Like all hollies, this shrub is easy to control by shearing. If it
becomes overgrown, it can be cut back severely, but really hard pruning should
be delayed until early spring just before new growth begins.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension News -
November 19, 2004
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.
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