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A Good Plant: Ilex Opaca, The American Holly

I took this photo.
Photo: Albert Burneko (GMG)

It has been a rough year for my five little holly trees, transplanted last spring from a nursery to the muddy, weedy slope of the western edge of my home property, along the stupidly long driveway.

Development and deforestation next door exposed them to the blast of violent downhill winds. The displaced mammal life from that denuded patch of earth burrowed into the soil under them, turning their root systems into furrowed honeycombs. Several mid-autumn false summers and a spectacularly ill-timed false spring screwed up their seasonal rhythms and caused them to shoot out new growth right before a heavy March snowstorm arrived to kill that delicate, vulnerable new stuff and make a waste of all the energy that had gone into it. A certain impatient moron (me) salted the hell out of the driveway after a freezing rain coated it with ice; when the ice melted, the saltwater flowed off into the soil, where the poor hollies had no choice but to drink that poisonous swill. By the time the snow melted, they looked like absolute shit: Yellow and brown and near barren. At a stiff breeze they’d practically spit their leaves on the ground in protest. But they were alive.


And then, just last month, when those battered, haggard-looking little fellows had juuust begun to recover from the abuse and push out a second valiant attempt at new growth—when and how did the poor suckers gather the solar energy for this?—a two-week stretch of the heaviest and most violent rainstorms I’ve seen in my entire damn life arrived, flooding basically the entire region and turning the slope where the trees stand into a friggin’ water slide. Rushing floodwater washed the soil right off of their roots, leaving the hollies sticking hopelessly out of the rutted and furrowed gravel left behind like five individual jokes.

Improvising cluelessly, in every way unqualified for this and every single other gardening or landscaping or horticultural or homeownership challenge, apologizing to these sad lil’ sticks with my actual out-loud voice like a maniac, I packed cheap peat moss into those ruts until the hollies’ bases looked—vaguely—like they belonged to a genre of earth that might host plant life, then stood there like an idiot with my hands on my hips, wondering whether I should water this dry stuff into place or if that was what would finally drown them. I built the most pathetic little wall of sandbags you’ve ever seen, to divert some of the floodwater away. I mounded the cheapest, stinkiest mulch in the world—you could convince me it’s broken pencils soaked in dumpster juice—around their bases. And then I just kinda looked out the window at them, a lot, hoping they wouldn’t be dead.

They’re thriving! They’re bursting with new neon-green foliage! They’re rocketing upward, or at least they are visibly taller than they were six weeks ago! My friends, the American holly is a good plant.

I was an American holly skeptic when we first planted these guys, I will admit. Mostly this is because I thought of them as spiny and unlovely and winter-y, at a time when it was spring and my taste in plants ran toward stuff that doesn’t make me think of Christmas. That’s stupid. What makes a plant good or bad is not whether it reminds you of seasons you don’t like. What makes a plant good or bad is also what makes a dog or a friend good or bad: Whether you can depend on it in good times and bad, or whether it is a flaky flibbertigibbet who will go completely bald and die the first time you force it to drink its body weight in filthy saltwater.


The American holly is ornery, yes. Its leaves are spiny and stiff, and they don’t glow underneath when the sunlight falls on them, like the altogether much more pleasant leaves of the tulip poplar. Nor are they feathery and rich, like the foliage of many friendlier evergreens. They do not rustle or whisper when the wind blows through them; they rattle, like a symphony of maracas. This is okay. The American holly has its own charms: A neat cone shape, pretty red berries, the ability to withstand my incompetence. By midsummer, the new leaves are a glossy deep green on top and a softer heather green beneath; by late autumn I still don’t have to rake them, because they don’t fall off, and that’s good.

Most importantly, every American holly is a little vegetal Rasputin, latched onto earth and life with whatever roots it has, ready to blast some new leaves and twigs into the world at each next lapse in the onslaught of horror and deprivation that is life on earth.


Many plants are hardy, yet also bad. Honeysuckle, for example, or kudzu. The American holly differs from these because, at least in the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone where I live (7a), it is not a menace to other plants. You will not find an American holly strangling its way up the side of a mighty oak, or splattering grasping limbs across a neighboring sapling. It perseveres, but without giving up its dignity and neighborliness. And anyway, many perfectly fine people have spiny protrusions, both literal and figurative. This is not some kind of metaphor or coy self-revelation. I’m just glad my trees didn’t die.

In conclusion, the American holly is a very good plant. I give it an A-minus. Join us next time as I review grass, a real no-good son of a bitch.

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