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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Spruce Up Your Home with Holly-day Sprigs

December 8, 2003

WOOSTER, Ohio -- Each year, Connie Lybarger, 67, of Delaware, Ohio, prunes boughs from her backyard holly. And while she could keep the evergreen sprigs to herself, Lybarger opts to share with her friends. The joy she finds in sharing holly comes not only from holiday spirit, but stems back to the livelihood of her father, Oliver Diller. “Ollie,” as the Ohio forester and horticulturist was known, considered holly his winter pride and joy, and as it is said, ’twas the season of giving. In 1950, Ollie and his family moved to Ecko Hollow -- near Diller Park, in Wooster, Ohio. From there, he built his holly reputation and backyard operation, which was housed in a small, barn-like structure, Lybarger said. Each winter, a small potting table in the building was used to preserve, bag and tag sprigs of holly. The bags were then delivered in person to neighbors, church friends and residents of convalescent homes. But Ollie’s hollies did not stop there. As curator of the Secrest Arboretum, located on the Ohio Agricultural and Research Development Center’s (OARDC) Wooster campus, Ollie played a key part in establishing research on hollies in Ohio. Between 1952 and 1955, over 30 American holly selections were planted in the arboretum for long-term evaluation. Since then, OARDC has worked with the holiday plant for the benefit of Ohio’s holly growers and the state’s growing horticultural industry. “Holly is such a beautiful symbol of Christmas that it’s highly sought after,” said Gary Anderson, a member of the Secrest Arboretum Council. “Evergreen holly is widely used in traditional English-style holiday decorating where it is often combined with ivy. It goes well with natural elements like raffia, birds and pine cones. “Deciduous holly, with its bright, colorful berries also is one of the most sought after sources of natural red in the winter landscape,” he said. While holly decorations add a beautiful touch to any home, they can quickly decline without the proper maintenance, said Anderson, who also is a professor of horticulture at Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute. Holly sprigs last longest in cool locations with high humidity, such as breezeways and outside doors. Holly placed indoors should be put in water and kept away from hot-air registers and direct sun. “The secret to longevity of a holly branch is to keep it cool and moist,” Anderson said. “When you bring it inside without water, the leaves lose their shine and the berries shrivel. And while holly used inside without a water source can be a quick party decoration, it will not last the entire holiday season.” Holly sprigs should be put in water or in saturated floral foam. They can be misted with water to keep the sprig from drying out or can be sprayed with an anti-desiccant spray, Anderson said. Anti desiccant sprays form an invisible barrier on the leaves and berries to help lock in the branchís natural moisture. For branches placed in water, a floral preservative can be used to extend their life. Floral preservatives, available through florists, kill bacteria in the water, which aids in preservation. But before preserving and sharing holly, gardeners and growers, like Ollie, need to know the basics of pruning. People cutting their own holly sprigs this year should be cautious of the amount they prune, said Ken Cochran, curator of Secrest Arboretum. Cutting away more than one-third of the plant can cause excessive growth the following year and fewer budding flowers, hence fewer berries. Branches also should be pruned in a symmetrical manner so that the plant will grow back evenly the following year. Pruning should be done about three weeks before freezing weather sets in, which is difficult to pinpoint, Cochran said. A severe drop in temperature, 20 degrees to 30 degrees in the period of a day, can be devastating to many plants. Exposure to low temperatures is hard on a wounded plant working to heal its cuts, or pruned areas. Holiday decorators who instead get their branches from a local florist will find both evergreen holly -- sprigs with leaves and berries -- and deciduous holly -- bare branches with berries. Deciduous holly trees, commonly called winterberry, lose their leaves in winter, and although they are not thought of as the traditional holiday sprig, are growing in popularity, Cochran said. Holiday shoppers will most likely find English holly, Ilex aquifolium, which is not commonly grown in Ohio. An evergreen hybrid, Ilex x meserveae, is preferable for Ohioís landscape and climate, Cochran said. Ollie’s American hollies, Ilex opaca, also provide a nice cut branch with different berry color options: yellow, orange and red. Deciduous hollies, Ilex verticillata, ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Red Sprite,’ have bright red berries that are enjoyed by decorators and the birds. Both deciduous and evergreen holly trees are in full array in Secrest Arboretum. Visit the Oliver Diller Holly Display to find a winter wonderland and take a stroll around the OARDC campus to see seasonal landscaping features such as doorway containers bearing holly branches. -30- Editor’s Note: Photos of holly and holly research are available through Ken Chamberlain at or (330) 263-3779.

Melissa Brewer
Gary Anderson