Do YOU know how to sex a holly?

It's a boy: Holly Silver Queen. Below, it's a girl: Holly Lawsonia.
It's a boy: Holly Silver Queen. Below, it's a girl: Holly Lawsonia.

HOLLIES are invaluable in the winter garden – so invaluable, I broke one of my cardinal rules.

While shopping for some screws at my local DIY store, I spotted several varieties for sale. Like an addict, I grabbed two and headed for the checkout.

The first thing everyone needs to know about hollies is that they are mostly either male and female. If your plant doesn’t have berries, it’s either male (which don’t get any), or a female whose flowers haven’t been pollinated.

You need to plant one of each sex, which is more confusing than it seems, since many are named as the wrong gender – you’ll see what I mean.

There is a variety of English holly, Ilex aquifolium JC van Tol, that is female but self-fertile. Its glossy, dark green leaves are almost spineless and the bright red berries appear on dark purple stems in autumn and persist through the winter.

My first holly, bought at Harrogate Autumn Show this year, is Golden King (obviously, it’s female). It has golden-edged, almost spine-free leaves and red berries). She wasn’t going to get any of those unless I found a mate.

Many garden centres stock holly, but not all tell you what sex they are, or have staff with the right knowledge! Do your homework before you go and buy one of each. One male can pollinate several females. My two shameful purchases are actually lovely plants.

The first, Ilex aquifolium Silver Queen (male!) has dark green spiny leaves, with purple stems and branches and new growth tinged with pink. It’s a lovely foliage plant.

The other is Ilex x altaclerensis Lawsoniana (female), with broad, spineless leaves, marked with yellow and yellow/green, and red berries.

I’m growing this one in my new raised bed in the driveway.

Being spineless and up against a trellis, it won’t upset the neighbours.

My plants are small, but I can’t wait to bring in wreaths of home-grown decorations at Christmas in a few years’ time.