Plant taxonomy classifies this plant as Ilex x 'Nellie R. Stevens.' Ilex is the genus name for holly. The part of the name in single quotation marks is, as always, the particular cultivar. The plant is sometimes referred to informally without the middle initial, "R."
There are many kinds of hollies, most (but not all) of which are evergreen. Some stay short and are grown as shrubs, while others grow tall and can be treated as either trees or shrubs. Nellie R. Stevens holly falls into the latter category. It is classified more specifically as a broadleaf evergreen. Ilex makes up its own plant family, Aquifoliaceae; that is, it is the sole genus in that family.
Traits and Growing Conditions
A fast grower, Nellie R. Stevens holly shrub typically reaches a height of about 30 feet, spreads out about 15 feet at its base, and has a pyramidal shape—that is, it is narrower at the top. In fact, it bears a classic Christmas-tree shape. This holly bears spiny, dark green leaves and round red berries.
In his description of this shrub, Michael Dirr calls it the "grande dame of landscape hollies in the Southeast: common, overused, but beautifully functional to a pragmatic fault." (Dirr's Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs, Page 377)
Care Tips and Uses in Landscaping
This bush maintains its pyramidal shape without much pruning and is usually not subject to pest damage, making it a low-maintenance plant. But if you wish for it to appear more tree-like, prune off the lower branches in winter, so as to expose its trunk. To the extent that pest control is needed at all, you will have to look out for scale, spider mites, and whitefly. There are also highly specialized leaf miners that feed wholly or mainly on specific kinds of holly: Phytomyza ilicicola attacks I. opaca, while the target of P. ilicis is I. aquifolium. Spray organic Neem oil on your plants when you find evidence of insect attacks.
While this type of holly is especially popular in Southern states such as Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, it is, in fact, hardy all the way to zone 6. For the next zone north of that, plant the somewhat hardier Ilex opaca 'Mac's Prince,' which is suitable for zones 5 to 9. Mac's Prince reaches a height of 15 to 30 feet, with a spread of 10 to 20 feet.
Nellie Stevens is a wonderful tree for winter interest, both indoors and outdoors. Branches may be pruned so that the clippings can be brought in and used for holiday decorations, or just enjoy its evergreen leaves and red berries in the winter landscape. Before buying one, decide on its function in your yard. It is sold both in tree form (with a single leader) and bush form (with multiple stems at the base).
Nellie R. Stevens holly is most commonly used as a specimen tree or massed in a hedge to form a "living wall" that functions as a privacy screen. When it is to be treated as a specimen tree, purchase the tree form: This will give you the option of removing the lower limbs so that a trunk shows. When used as privacy screens, the bush form is fine. If a tree form is to be used in a privacy screen, the lower limbs are usually retained.
Other Kinds of Holly
There is a kind of holly out there to meet almost any landscaping need. Here are just a few examples:
- English holly (Ilex aquifolium): This is a tree that grows to be 30 to 50 feet tall, with a spread of 15 to 25 feet. As such, it is obviously suited mainly to larger yards. Its species name tells you what its leaves are like: It comes from the Latin words acus (needle) and folium (leaf). This is one of many kinds of holly that has prickly leaves (but not all do). I. aquifolium 'Argenteomarginata' is an example of holly with two-toned leaves. Grow it in zones 6 to 9.
- American holly (Ilex opaca): Another kind that grows in tree form, it is not as big as the English version, reaching 15 to 30 feet in height, with a width of 10 to 20 feet. It is thus better suited than the English if you are lacking space. Native plant lovers in North America will also prefer it for its native status. One cultivar, namely, 'Aurea,' sports yellowish fruit, just in case you are not interested in the more typical red-berried hollies. Grow it in zones 5 to 9.
- Japanese holly (I. crenata) also offers some interesting variations on the better-known hollies. Examples are 'Sky Pencil' (4 to 10 feet tall with a width not much more than 1 foot; zones 6 to 8) and the 'Hetzii' cultivar (3 to 6 feet tall and wide; zones 5 to 8). They produce blackberries. Sky Pencil is even more valued for its column-like shape.
- Chinese holly goes by the botanical name of I. cornuta. The 'Burfordii' cultivar (zones 7 to 9) may be the best-known in the Southern United States. This is due to the fact that it performs relatively well in hot areas, in addition to tolerating drought. It is considered a fast-growing shrub, reaching 15 feet tall and 10 feet wide when mature.
Name and Origin
According to the Plantilus database, the shrub was named for Nellie Robinson Stevens, in whose garden the original hybrid plant was produced.
This is a female hybrid plant, a cross between the English holly and the Chinese holly. Hollies are generally dioecious plants, so you usually need both a male and female for fruit production. Strictly speaking, the Nellie R. Stevens holly is an exception to this rule, being what is called a partially "parthenocarpic" plant. This means that it is able to set some fruit without a male being present, although the fruit will be seedless. Such technicalities aside, it is still better to provide a male: Doing so will produce more fruit. The male counterpart is Ilex x 'Edward J. Stevens.'