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Botanist's Lens: Emerald, Ruby, Gold... All in One Gem of a Genus!

Ilex is a genus belonging to the Aquifoliaceae family with over 450 species. From being used for decorating a wreath or being used as a pioneer species or a loyal evergreen in landscaping, to even being known for consisting of cognitive enhancing properties, this genus has an extremely wide array of uses.

"Holly," which is the common name for Ilex aquifolium, is also used for most species of Ilex. But not all evergreen Ilex are the same hollies, neither are all Ilex sps. evergreen. Most hollies have bright red berries, but some evergreen hollies also have yellow berries!

Ilex opaca is native to south central United States, and this red berried American Holly has less shiner leaves compared to the common European Holly, I. aquifolium. One of the I. opaca varieties, 'Aurea' has canary yellow berries. You can find a healthy mature 'Aurea' in the winter walk at London Town.

Many Ilex varieties are commonly found in the nursery trade. But a 'Yerba Mate tea' plant, I. paraguariensis, is a species that is still rather uncommon. This Ilex sps. has caffeine in it!

It is considered to have caffeine content close to that found in green tea. Yerba Mate tea, an infusion made from the leaves of the tree Ilex paraguariensis, is a widely consumed nonalcoholic beverage in South America which is gaining rapid introduction into the world market, either as tea itself or as ingredient in formulated foods or dietary supplements". (

I. verticilatta is considered to be a pioneer species very commonly used in rain gardens. Most commonly used I. verticillata variety is female 'red sprite' and male 'Jim Dandy'. Yes, Ilex are dioecious (having the male and female reproductive organs in separate individuals), and usually for every 3-5 females, you need at least one male pollinator.

Both American and European Hollies are excellent evergreen choices for any landscape that wants to have an everlasting emerald green canvas. In fact, Hollies are a loyal and sustainable choice as a screen. They can grow in sun, part shade and full shade.

At London Town, you will notice the use of Hollies as an evergreen canvas in the woodland garden; many of them also planted for providing shade for new growth. But most interestingly, London Town's gardens were also used as a test site for some unique varieties of Hollies. I. opaca, I. quifolium, I. cornuta, I. koehneana, I. glabra, and many others. Here is a good link for pictures of varieties:

The Hollies are looking stunning at this time of the year at London Town. Their cheery red berries are a reminder of the holiday season! Many berries will be used in wreaths this weekend during the very popular, sold out wreath workshop. (More info:

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