What’s In a Name?

What’s in a name? When the name is Nellie R. Stevens, a holly by any other name just wouldn’t be the same.

The Nellie R. Stevens Holly (Ilex x Nellie R. Stevens) is a surprisingly wonderful holly. While its creator, Nellie R. Stevens, was deceased by the time the first of her hollies marched proudly onto the world stage, the original Nellie R. Stevens would smile to see her creation all over the warm south and mid-Atlantic as it is now.

Nellie, the human, was interested in growing plants. All plants. On a visit to the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., she fell in love with a holly and – no doubt looking wildly about to see if anybody was watching – snuck a few berries home to her yard in Oxford, Maryland. (Don’t filch berries without permission. This is not the precedent the original Nellie wanted the world to follow.)

The original Nellie R. was an original, indeed. According to her nephew, Fletcher Hanks, Nellie and her sister, Ida, had seedlings growing in Mason jars all around the property at Maplehurst in Oxford. In the end, all the careful care came to fruition with not just one brand new holly, but two.

While gazing up through the leaves of the original Nellie R. Stevens holly tree, it’s easy to see how large the canopy becomes over time.

The Nellie R. Stevens Holly is a large, pyramid shaped tree with the spiney leaves we’re used to from our beloved American Hollys (Ilex opaca) and the almost uncanny ability to produce berries all by itself. The English hollies, and our American version, can’t do this. Those hollies are dioecious, meaning that it takes two to tango. A male plant and a female plant. While you only need one male for many females to berry, they just won’t if there’s no guy around.

Nellie R. Stevens Holly proudly produces berries all by herself. She’s “parthenocarpic,” which means that she can do just that; this is not the same as “self pollinating,” which means that the pollen from a plant can fertilize the ovums and produce seed. Parthenocarpic Nellie R. Stevens, though, doesn’t need pollen at all. She got this trait from her ancestor, the Chinese Holly.

A sign at Maplehurst in Oxford signifies the original Nelly R. holly trees that were planted in 1900.

The Nellie hollies do, however, enjoy a partner, at least sometimes. Their male partner is “Edward J. Stevens,” named for the original (human) Nellie’s father, the human with that name, and also originally grown in Mason jars. Typical of dioecious male plants of all stripes, the Edward holly doesn’t make pretty berries. If he’s around Nellies, though, the Nellies will make enormous quantities of berries compared to doing it all on their own. Sometimes it’s just more fun to tango!

These hollies grew happily – and unheralded – on the Oxford property for years. Sadly, not everyone loved them until they finally were recognized as the special trees they are. In fact, to this day, Jennifer Stanley, who now owns the property in Oxford, prefers our American Hollies. “The Nellie R. Stevens grows really fast,” she comments, “so it needs lots of room unless you want to trim it all the time.” Many people do just that nowadays; the tree is often sold as an excellent hedge plant. If you’ve got pruners, go for it! It will grow quickly to give you a nice privacy screen.

Here you can clearly see the difference between Nellie R. and American holly leaves.

The ‘Nellies’ weren’t discovered until (human) Nellie’s niece, Eunice Highley, who owned the Oxford property at that time, became concerned that the Magnolia Grandiflora growing near the hollies was being crowded out. She had almost decided on getting rid of the hollies, but – in the nick of time – Ms. Highley attended a program of the Talbot County Garden Club about hollies and decided to reconsider. She invited the speaker, Gus Van Lennep, Jr., owner of “Crooked Intention” Holly Nursery of St. Michaels, to visit and identify the hollies. Mr. Van Lennep studied them closely but couldn’t identify them. He sent samples to the Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., where the seeds had originated years before, and found that they were, indeed, new cultivars. Nursery man to the core, with Eunice Highly’s permission, he went to work propagating them from cuttings. It was 1952, and the “Nellie R. Stevens Holly” hit the American gardening world with fanfare.

Want to identify your holly? The Nellies have a distinctive leaf, very different from our American hollies. Our natives have very spiny leaves, with spines starting at the petiole (the section that connects the leaf to the stem) and continuing out to a central pointy spine at the end of the leaf. Nellies have nice, shiny evergreen leaves, too, but comparatively few spines, generally only one to three, clustered near the tip of the leaf. Our American hollies grow much more slowly, too, and seldom, if ever, needing pruning.

Nellie R. is a rather perfect tree for many of us. She grows, and produces berries, in almost any conditions in zones six through 9, perfect for the Eastern Shore. She’s not fussy about soil. She doesn’t get too tall, only 30 to 35 feet. Compared to our American Hollies, they slowly, slowly grow to even 100 feet in great soil. Nellie R. can grow 18” to 2 feet in a year, every year, so she quickly makes gorgeous hedges and privacy screens (expect to trim them, like any hedge). She gets berries even if she lacks her favorite partner, Edward J. Stevens. She feeds bees with her flowers and birds (primarily Robins and Cedar waxwings, in late winter) with her berries. She’s a great tree to trim for Christmas decorations – and – if that were not enough – was bred right here on the Eastern Shore in beloved Oxford.

Face it – this is a magical holly.

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