Perhaps it’s the way this plant was introduced to me almost half a century ago — as a housewarming gift from a nurseryman friend I respected quite highly. Maybe it’s the fact that it sat around in a Southern lady’s garden for even longer than that before anyone recognized its worth and bothered to introduce it into the nursery industry.
Whatever the reason, Nellie R. Stevens holly has quite a history. It was a chance seedling of the highly prickly Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta) that was found growing at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. (the same large public garden that gave rise to all the crape myrtle cultivars bearing Native American tribal names such as Natchez, Muskogee, Tuscarora and 26 others) in 1900. But this holly wasn’t nearly as prickly as its mama.
As recorded by my friend and holly authority, the late Fred Galle of Calloway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia, in his book Hollies (Timber Press, 1997), the plant lady took this seedling and two others to her estate (Maplehurst Gardens) in Oxford, Maryland, where they grew unnamed for 52 years. Nurseryman G.A. Van Lennep Jr. saw them and officially named them in 1954. The best of the bunch was named for that lady herself, ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly. The other two were given the names ‘Edward Stevens’ and ‘Maplehurst’ hollies.
Within 20 years Nellie R. Stevens holly had gone from being unnamed and completely unknown to being one of the brightest young stars in the Southern plant industry. At a time when we’d vastly overused waxleaf ligustrums, Nellie R. Stevens holly offered us a chance at a plant that was adapted to almost all soils, sun or shade, and at least one Hardiness Zone farther north.
This is a shrub that can be maintained at 8 or 10 feet with annual pruning. Left untrimmed and given ideal North Texas growing conditions, it will attain 20 or 22 feet tall and 15 feet wide, although that’s going to take 20 years or longer. And, yes, that means it can be trained single-trunk into tree form. It makes a gloriously beautiful Christmas-tree-shaped evergreen in the landscape.
One of the things I like most about Nellie R. Stevens hollies is their lustrous, leathery dark green foliage. Other than Asian jasmine ground cover, no plant in our gardens is any darker green. It’s just majestic at the corner of a brick or stone house, the perfect contrast in color and texture, and it’s equally beautiful framing the back corner of a pool garden.
There’s something you may not know about hollies. Most species (yaupons are a good example) have separate male and female plants. Only the female plants will bear fruit, but you need the male plants to produce pollen. But all Nellie R. Stevens hollies have both male and female flowers on the same plant, so they’re all self-pollinating. Every plant should be able to bear fruit.
It may just have been a fluke, but of the 50 or 60 Nellie R. Stevens hollies we have in our rural North Texas landscape, none had any fruit for the first 20 years that we had them. They bloomed, but produced no berries. Suddenly, about 20 years ago, the fruit kicked in and they’ve never stopped since. Right about this time every year we get thousands of big, red berries that persist all winter — until the cedar waxwings migrate through. The berries and birds are gone in a day. That’s a day when we park the cars up the hill away from the hollies.
When people ask me about a tall screening shrub they can use in place of doomed redtip photinias that are falling to the fatal Entomosporium fungal leaf spot for which we have no prevention or cure, Nellie R. Stevens hollies are my suggestion. And remember, they grow well in sun or shade. That’s something few other shrubs (except for other types of hollies) will do.
When people ask me for a tall accent shrub to draw attention to an important part of their garden, this is high on my list. And, as mentioned, for an unusual single-trunk tree with as much drama as one landscape can hold, Nellie R. Stevens is suited up and ready.
Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make with this venerable plant is in underestimating its mature size. If you intend to let it grow to be 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide, measure that distance when you’re planting. Unless you buy a big plant at the outset, your new Nellie is going to look mighty lonesome at first out there by herself. But she’ll grow to be a big girl if you let her. Don’t encumber her with other shrubs too close to her sides.
Have I seen any pests on my Nellie R. Stevens hollies over the past 47 years that I’ve grown them? Yes, but nothing of consequence. One year we had a few grasshoppers. There are leaf miners occasionally. And scale insects do show up on them. Of the three, I worry most about the scale and I use a systemic insecticide in spring after bloom to keep them in check.
Other than that, my team of Nellies gets nitrogen and its fair share of water. I rarely trim them. By spacing them properly at the outset, I really don’t need to.
Yeah, I did say we have 50 or 60 of them in the Sperry home landscape. But we live in the country. And I grew ’em myself. And I tell myself I’m not obsessive about them — at least three or four times daily.