Those of you who have marveled at my plastic blue poinsettia Christmas wreath and my lovely white fiber-optic tree know that Grumpy is a genius when it comes to holiday decorating. But frankly, spending every waking hour scavenging the bargain bins at Wal-Mart has me bushed. So this week, I'm letting others do the decorating using one of my favorite winter plants -- deciduous holly.

The Naked Truth

Deciduous hollies lose their leaves in winter, but more than atone for this with spectacular displays of showy berries. Two native species are seen in the South -- winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and possumhaw (Ilex decidua). Most people have trouble telling them apart until Grumpy tells them how. Winterberry has dark-brown to blackish bark; possumhaw has silvery bark. Winterberry's leaves have pointed tips; possumhaw's have rounded tips. And possumhaw grows twice as big -- about 25 feet tall and 15 feet wide.

Berries with Benefits

Winterberry prefers acid, well-drained or wet soil. Possumhaw likes acid or alkaline, well-drained, moist or dry soil. Both give their best show in full sun. Only female plants produce berries, so you need a male pollinator somewhere close by. One male can service 6 females. (Oh, to be a male holly! Berries with benefits!) Clip berry-laden branches for decorations this month or buy cut holly branches from the florist. You can use them both indoors and out.

Berry Good Ideas

In the photo up top, Grumpy's colleague, Rebecca Reed, brightened up a courtyard by filling 3 containers with cut winterberry. She planted the pots atop the columns with 'Red Giant' mustard and then stuck 'Winter Red' winterberry branches into the soil between the leaves. The burgundy foliage and scarlet berries look great together. The far planter is actually a bubble fountain turned off for winter. She placed oasis in the top, covered it with green moss, and then stuck in the holly branches. Booyah, Rebecca!

The Inside Story

For great ideas on how to decorate with deciduous hollies indoors, I turned to my friend, Jon Carloftis, the famed garden designer from Lexington, Kentucky. Jon designs rooftop gardens for the rich and famous in Manhattan and occasionally lowers his standards to work with me. We did all of these shots in his Lexington home.

Here's a centerpiece for Jon's dining room table. "Big table arrangement are the easiest things to do for a buffet table, or mantel, or really anything that requires a big showstopper," he says. "First, get a big plastic/aluminum oval or rectangle tray from the grocery. Put in forced plastic containers of paperwhites -- just set them right on the tray. Stick cut branches of winterberry in the soil of the paperwhites.Then on the sides of the plastic containers, insert small jelly jars or juice glasses, and put cut baby's breath in them (it even dries nicely in case you forget to water). Last, cut small branches of any evergreen and slide them onto the tray to cover the plastic pots and jars. This is a five minute task that makes a huge show."


Grumpy concurs.

Not all deciduous hollies are red. Some have yellow, gold, or orange berries. For the next shot, we wanted to do something small-scale. So Jon created a fabulous combination consisting of cut 'Winter Gold' winterberry branches paired with green spider mums in Lalique crystal vases for a small glass table.


There was one more shot we thought would be cool. As a born and bred Kentucky boy, Jon is a fancier of fine Bourbon and proudly displays his collection to visitors. so we though it would it would be nice to use 'Winter Gold' branches in an ice bucket (below) to garnish his family of loved ones.


Well, I Hope You Learned Something Today....

It's not too late to impress your neighbors and make them feel ashamed of their tawdry, totally expected decorations. Use deciduous hollies, I say. They're berries with benefits!