The Allure of the Holly Oak Leaf

If you’re looking for a stunning addition to your yard that won’t take up too much space, look no further than the Oak Leaf holly. With its natural pyramid shape and ability to be pruned into a formal hedge or privacy screen, this shrub is a versatile and visually appealing choice for any garden.

Unveiling the Oak Leaf Holly

The Oak Leaf holly, scientifically known as Ilex, belongs to the Aquifoliaceae family, commonly known as the holly family. It is a hybrid cultivar that brings a splash of color to gardens in USDA Hardiness Zones 6-9. With its unique foliage, which starts off with a rusty-red tint before maturing into a deep emerald green, this evergreen plant is a delightful sight to behold.

The leaves of the Oak Leaf holly are serrated with three to five margins, exhibiting small, sharp prickles at the ends. Its cream-white flowers release a delicate scent in spring and later transform into small green berries. These berries mature into beautiful red-orange fruits by fall, providing a visual feast and nourishment for birds throughout the winter months.

A close up horizontal image of the unique foliage of Ilex x 'Conaf' growing in the garden, pictured on a soft focus background.

A Hybrid Marvel

The Oak Leaf holly is part of the Red Holly™ series, consisting of five hybrid cultivars that originated from the breeding efforts of Jack Magee, a talented plant breeder at Evergreen Nurseries in Mississippi. The parent plant, ‘Mary Nell,’ is a cross between I. cornuta and I. pernyi, with the male parent being I. latifolia. However, the male parent of the Oak Leaf holly remains a mystery.

Initially patented in 1995 as ‘Conaf,’ this captivating cultivar is now marketed under the trademarked name Oak Leaf. Alongside Oak Leaf, the Red Holly™ series also includes ‘Cardinal,’ ‘Festive,’ ‘Little Red,’ and ‘Robin,’ all of which are evergreen shrubs suitable for cultivation in Zones 6-9.

Propagation: From Cuttings to Transplanting

Due to its hybrid nature, growing Oak Leaf holly from seeds is not possible. Instead, you can either purchase a plant from a nursery or take stem cuttings from an existing shrub. Softwood stems are ideal for this purpose, and you can create clones of the parent plant by following these steps:

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From Stem Cuttings

  1. Prepare eight-ounce clear plastic cups filled with a mixture of perlite and peat moss.
  2. Moisten the potting medium with a misting bottle.
  3. Using gardening gloves, cut three to five-inch lengths of stem from sections of new growth.
  4. Remove all leaves except for two or three at the tip of the cuttings.
  5. Place one cutting in each pre-filled cup, burying it one to two inches deep.
  6. Maintain a humid environment by covering each cup with a dome or plastic zip-top bag.
  7. Place the cups in a warm area with indirect sunlight, spraying the potting medium with water twice a day.
  8. After six to eight weeks, check for root growth by gently tugging on the stem. If resistance is felt, repot the cutting in a larger container.
  9. Transplant the rooted cuttings into eight-inch pots filled with fresh potting soil, providing them with ample sunlight or using a grow light.
  10. Harden the plants by gradually increasing their time outdoors until they can withstand eight-hour stretches of indirect light.
  11. Finally, transplant the holly plants into their permanent location in your yard or garden.

A close up horizontal image of a hand from the left of the frame pruning the branches of a holly bush, pictured on a soft focus background.

Transplanting

If you opt to purchase a plant from a garden center or nursery, late summer or early autumn is the best time to transplant it into your garden. This timing allows the roots to establish themselves before winter arrives. Be mindful that Oak Leaf holly plants can spread seven to nine feet wide, so ensure you provide enough space for each shrub to grow and thrive. Alternatively, if you desire a dense hedge, position each plant five to six feet apart.

To transplant a nursery shrub or year-old cutting:

  1. Dig a hole as deep and wide as the root ball and mix compost and peat moss into the soil.
  2. Loosen the root ball and remove it from the nursery pot.
  3. Place the root ball in the hole and backfill with soil.
  4. Water thoroughly and admire your newly planted Oak Leaf holly, which will soon make a bold statement in your yard.
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Growing Conditions for Success

Oak Leaf holly thrives in full or partial sun and requires well-draining, organically rich, slightly acidic soil. Conducting a soil test to ensure a pH range of 5.0-6.5 is advisable. If adjustment is necessary, granular sulphur can help lower the pH according to package instructions.

A close up horizontal image of the glossy green foliage of Ilex x 'Conaf' pictured in light sunshine and fading to soft focus in the background.

These resilient shrubs tolerate various soil types, including sandy and clay soils. Once established, they require minimal attention. However, it is crucial to maintain adequate moisture during the early stages of growth. Watering should be reduced to only when the top inch of soil has dried out, typically requiring one to two inches of water per week. While established plants can tolerate some dryness, avoid prolonged drought conditions to ensure optimal flowering and fruit production.

To assist with moisture retention and root protection from winter temperature fluctuations, applying a layer of straw or bark mulch is beneficial.

Tips for Success

To ensure your Oak Leaf holly flourishes, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Plant it in a location that receives full sun.
  • Maintain a soil pH between 5.0 and 6.5.
  • Provide one to two inches of water per week, accounting for rainfall.

Pruning and Maintenance

Pruning is an effective way to shape your Oak Leaf holly and maintain a specific appearance or hedge. However, bear in mind that pruning outside of the winter dormancy period may result in fewer berries the following year. This is because the plant develops buds for the upcoming year on new growth, while the previous year’s growth supports berry production.

If you prefer a more natural aesthetic, you can choose not to prune your holly. Left to grow uninhibited, it will naturally adopt a pleasing pyramid shape and produce an abundance of beautiful berries throughout winter.

For optimal plant health, prune any dead, broken, or diseased branches during winter dormancy. Additionally, thin out intersecting or crossing branches to increase airflow. Feeding your Oak Leaf holly with suitable acid-loving plant fertilizers, such as Espoma Holly-tone or those recommended for azaleas, in spring and fall will ensure its vigor.

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Managing Pests and Disease

Oak Leaf holly is generally resilient to pest infestations and diseases when established and healthy. Deer tend to avoid these shrubs, making them a safe choice for your garden. Rabbits, too, will typically dine elsewhere.

However, a couple of common pests to watch out for are the holly leaf miner and whitefly. The holly leaf miner lays its eggs inside the leaves, and while these larvae can harm the foliage, they rarely kill the plant. Removing fallen and infested leaves and spraying the plant with insecticidal soap can help control these pests.

Whiteflies, small white, winged insects that suck sap from the leaves, can also be managed by spraying neem oil or applying insecticidal soap.

In addition to leaf miners and whiteflies, Oak Leaf holly may sometimes encounter spider mites and scale insects.

As for diseases, leaf spot caused by the fungus Coniothyrium ilicinum and tar spot caused by Phacidium curtisii can affect your plant. To prevent these fungal issues, avoid overhead watering and ensure the soil isn’t oversaturated.

Best Uses for the Oak Leaf Holly

With its elegant growth habit and pyramidal shape, the Oak Leaf holly is perfect as a specimen plant or for foundation plantings. If pruned, it can also be used to create a dense hedge or privacy screen, effectively functioning as a natural fence between you and your neighbors.

A close up horizontal image of Ilex x 'Conaf' growing in the garden in front of a residence pictured in bright sunshine on a blue sky background.
Photo by Michael Rivera, Wikimedia Commons, via CC BY-SA.

The reddish hue of new growth adds interest to spring gardens, while the vibrant berries attract backyard birds during the winter. Low maintenance and quick-growing, the Oak Leaf holly brings year-round evergreen charm to your yard.

During winter, you can even harvest holly berry sprigs for indoor decorations or festive holiday centerpieces by placing them in water for extended freshness.

For more gardening tips and inspiration, visit Ames Farm Center, where you’ll find everything you need to cultivate a thriving garden.