Ilex crenata ‘Soft Touch’ is one of my favorite foundation planting type evergreen shrubs because the leaves on the plants are shiny green, very small and dainty offering a “neat” and “tidy” appearance in the landscape. It doesn’t get super large for front foundation plantings areas that don’t always have a lot of space. The leaves look like boxwood, but have a slight serration (like cut edge or toothed, for lack of better wording) on their edges. This Japanese Holly has appeal but it is often not recognized as a holly at all by non-plant people until I point it out to them.
When I show ‘Soft Touch’ to my clients and gardening friends, I let them know that “Ilex” is the Genus name for Holly. So anytime they see the word Ilex on a plant label, they will know it is a Holly even if it doesn’t look like the typical Holly. This sometimes surprises people because they often associate holly shrubs only with those having red berries and pointy tipped shiny green leaves often used during the holidays for winter container gardens or arrangements. ‘Blue Maid’, ‘Blue Princess’ and ‘Blue Prince’ are cultivar examples of the later, and of the Ilex meserveae varieties. They are known as blue hollies.
As I continue I to explain a male pollinator shrub is recommended in order for the female holly to produce lots of berries on these shrubs, the expressions on their faces is sometimes entertaining! If they are unaware of how the flowers (tiny and barely seen) turn into berries by way of a bee (or other pollinating insects) carrying pollen on their body or legs from the male flowers of one shrub, and coincidentally depositing them onto the female flowers on the female holly shrub results in pollination of the female flowers, they listen with interest. Soon enough the pollinated flower developes into fruit. It is truly amazing when you consider how a little itty bitty pollen grain from the anther of a male flower enters the female flower as it attaches to her stigma and travels down the pollen tube to unite with the egg cell in the ovule! Without this pollination to fertilization process, berries would not form. So if there is a male shrub close by, chances of more berries is greater! On Ilex crenata, the berries are black, not red like the blue holly types.
‘Soft Touch’ has a mounded or globe looking habit. Its tiny and dull greenish-white flowers appear along the stems in the leaf axils in spring, and are barely noticeable. This shrub grows to about two to four feet high and wide, can take sun or part-sun conditions. It is as a zone 6 plant, but I haven’t seen it fail yet in zone 5 areas of CT. CT consists of zones 5 and 6 areas, so it depends on your site and other factors which can affect microclimates in your particular landscape. If you are concerned with the zone, a similar looking holly that is a bit more hardy than ‘Soft Touch’, in my opinion, is Ilex crenata ‘Helleri’. It also has a similar mounded habit and glossy green foliage.
There are many more Ilex species out there from evergreen types to deciduous types. For example, Winterberries (Ilex verticillata), produce amazing red fruit in fall lasting into winter after leaves are far gone from this shrub. The red berries are super bright in the landscape. You can enjoy them starting in November and during December and January. Nothing like seeing tons of red berries against a white show background provided they are not buried by an unexpected abundant snowfall. This shrub is a great candidate for wet areas too. It prefers moisture but can also take dry conditions. Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’ is a compact form. They produce more berries if a male verticillata shrub in nearby too! And then there are upright hollies out there like ‘Castle Wall’ or ‘Dragon Lady’. So when you are looking for a holly for your landscape, consider looking at all Ilex varieties or hybrids in your local nursery. Some of my holly shrubs in my yard need replacement this year. They got too crushed from the snow for repair pruning (for info on this, visit my March e:Pub on my website, www.cathytesta.com).
Or visit UCONN’s Plant Database at http://www.hort.uconn.edu/plants/i/ilecre/ilecre1.html to learn more. This is a good resource for local CT gardeners. Cathy T of Cathy T’s Landscape Designs