- Cullman, Alabama


November 30, 2012

GARDENING: O sparkleberry, your branches red delight us

There is an idea in horticulture that the strategy for aging with your garden is to rip out all those perennials and annuals and replace them with low-maintenance shrubs.

I am thinking of this as I struggle to load a shrub the weight of an overfed spaniel into a wheelbarrow — actually four of the bushes — for a rendezvous with a new home at the top of a steep hill. The knees are creaking, the spine doth protest.

But I can forgive the shrubs their demands because they will look after themselves in the years to come and, moreover, because they are a variety of deciduous holly named Sparkleberry. This lovely plant confuses folks who think a holly is a tall, prickly evergreen that carolers encircle this time of year. There are others — I have met them — who think a holly or a mistletoe is a disembodied sprig that merely materializes for a moment of festive ornament. Such people deserve our sympathy, not condemnation.

Nature has given us 400 species of holly, and plant hybridizers have brought us many more in the form of cultivated varieties. Some of these hollies drop their leaves this time of year. The nakedness is offset with displays of fruit. Perhaps the best of them, the Sparkleberry variety, was created at the National Arboretum by crossing two shrubs from opposite sides of the world: our native winterberry holly with the Japanese version.

The hybrid is more than the sum of its parts. Once its simple leaves turn gold and drop, the shrub is a handsome tangle of gray bark blinged with big, red berries. The birds get to them eventually, but the berries should last through the winter. Three planted eight feet apart will eventually grow into a clump about eight to 10 feet high and form thousands of berries. In addition to Sparkleberry, other varieties are in the nursery trade, including Autumn Glow, Bonfire and, at six feet the smallest of the bunch, Harvest Red. Each will need a male pollinator, such as Apollo or Raritan Chief.

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