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England: Substitutes for classic holly can still bear traditional-looking berries
While Burford holly is not the classic holly of songs and Christmas wreaths, it still produces a bounty of berries that stay around until the birds devour them. - photo by Russ England

Question: I want to plant a holly tree that has lots of long-lasting berries. What can you suggest?

Answer: There are many varieties of hollies to choose from, so you may want to seek help from a landscape or garden center professional before you make a final selection for your site. I can offer a few suggestions.

The classic holly of song, legend and Christmas wreaths is the English holly (Ilex aquifolium), but this one does not do well in the South. It dislikes high temperatures, high humidity and poor drainage — factors common to our area.

You can achieve an effect similar to the English holly with a Nellie Stevens holly (Ilex ‘Nellie R. Stevens’), which is probably a hybrid between English and Chinese holly (I. Cornuta).

Nellie Stevens was developed in Maryland and released to the nursery trade in the 1950s, and many folks consider it the best all-around holly for the South.

Nellie Stevens is fast growing, forms a dense conical shape to about 25 feet tall, and has dark green glossy, sparsely toothed leaves. It sets fruit without cross pollination, but forms a heavier crop if pollinated by a male selection of Chinese holly.

I have a Burford holly (I. Cornuta ‘Burfordii’) that consistently bears lots of berries that cling to the tree until flocks of robins devour them in late winter. Burford grows to 20 feet high and wide, without the classic conical shape.

I have seen a few American hollies (I. opaca) that consistently produce berries, but these seem to be rare. This native holly is slow growing, but will reach 50 feet tall with a rounded pyramidal shape.

Q: I am forcing paperwhite bulbs indoors, but their stems grow so tall that I have to stake them to keep them from falling over. Is there any way to make the stems stronger?

A: The problem you describe is common with paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta), especially with those grown in low light conditions.

Not to worry, as the Flower Bulb Research Program at Cornell University has come up with a simple solution that will lift your "spirits." Distilled spirits, that is, and you have a variety to choose from.

The Cornell folks found that paperwhites developed a much shorter flower stem when fed a weak solution of alcohol instead of just plain water. The shorter stem is just the trick for keeping the flowers from getting top heavy.

To use the Cornell method, plant and grow your paperwhite bulbs as you normally would until the green shoot is about one to two inches long. At this point, pour off any excess water and replace it with a 5 percent alcohol solution.

You can use any "hard" liquor for this (gin, rum, vodka, whiskey). Do not use beer or wine, as the sugars in these will cause problems.

To achieve a 5 percent alcohol solution with a liquor that is 40 percent alcohol (80 proof), use one part booze with seven parts water. For other liquor strengths, just divide the percent alcohol content by five to calculate the dilution ratio.

If you don’t have a liquor cabinet in your house, head for the medicine cabinet. Rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol works just as well (one part 70 percent rubbing alcohol in about 13 parts water).

Why does this work? I suspect a graduate student at Cornell is pondering this very question as I write.

Probably the alcohol makes it harder for the plant to absorb water. Less water reduces stem growth, but not enough to affect the flowers.

Russ England is a Master Gardener trained and certified in horticulture and related areas through by the Georgia Cooperative Extension Service.

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