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never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

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NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.


NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.


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Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.


Plant Profiles

Gold-leaved Heller's Holly



Ten years after planting 'Helleri Golden Dwarf', I finally kneeled down and discovered what I'd been missing.  The sprinkling of gold leaves is obvious even during a casual walk-by.  But I needed stop—and, yes, kneel—to appreciate the plum-purple twigs.




Could there be a better pairing, a better contrast of yellow and burgundy?  No hardy plant does better; only the subtropical succulent with the memorable (and accurate) name of elephant food is able to sing this tune with more panache.




But if you're gardening North of Miami, elephant food is a container plant, not a garden stalwart.  'Helleri Golden Dwarf' is the way to have that same colorful excitement in your garden year-round.  



Here's how to grow this unexpectedly colorful holly:

Latin Name

Ilex crenata 'Helleri Dwarf Golden' / 'Golden Helleri'

Common Name

Gold-leaved Heller's Holly


Aquifoliaceae, the Holly family.

What kind of plant is it?

Broad-leaved evergreen shrub.


Zones 6 - 8; sometimes listed as Zone 5


Low, mounding, full to the ground, spreading, dense, and rigid; always wider than tall.

Rate of Growth

Slow.  Really slow.

Size in ten years

One foot high and two across.  Potentially to three feet wide, but never much more than a foot tall.


Dense and rigid, but not with a "tight" surface.  Unlike, say, boxwood, whose foliage crowds the outer extent of growth, creating a uniform "paving" of foliage and leaving a largely leafless and open-branched interior, Ilex crenata always maintains a deeper texture.  Both bushes appear similarly dense at a glance, but the density of box is comparatively superficial.  Ilex crenata is dense through-and-through. 

Grown for

its foliage:  The leaves are truly tiny: under of a half-inch long and three-eighths of an inch wide.  In Spring and early Summer, they emerge yellow.  The leaves that emerge first in the season have enough time over the Summer to transition to their dark-green maturity, but the advancing season catches the last of the new leaves short, and they remain yellow through their first Winter.  The shrub appears confetti'd with gold, not dipped in it.

Despite retaining their juvenile color through their first Winter, these late- emerging leaves seem fully hardy.  At least in my warm Zone 6 garden, I've never noticed any Winter-killed tips.


its young twigs: As is typical for Ilex crenata, the bark of young twigs is plum-colored.  But only the few cultivars with variegated foliage, such as 'Helleri Golden Dwarf', provide the contrast needed to display the twigs well.  Compare with 'Beehive':  It has plain-green foliage of similar size and density, and young twigs just as plum-colored, and yet I didn't even think to mention them. 


its habit: 'Helleri Dwarf Golden' grows with groundcovering density, in a slowly-expanding mound that's low compared to its width.  The profile is more like that of a scone than a muffin.

Flowering season

Spring, but holly flowers are small and not showy.  'Helleri' is supposedly a female, but flowers and berries have never been apparent.

Color combinations

Only the gold of Ilex crenata 'Helleri Dwarf Golden' is showy at any distance; the plum of the twigs is your reward for giving the shrub a closer look.  Neighboring plants whose coloristic talents include yellow, white, and burgundy are the best choices.

Partner plants

Large foliage is always a satisfying counterpart to small; the challenge with 'Helleri Golden Dwarf' is that the entire shrub could be shaded-out by even one monster leaf that strays overhead.  Another caution is large foliage of species whose growth is also low, mounding, and rigid.


Perhaps the best solution is to plant 'Helleri Golden Dwarf' to the south of plants with a looser habit, and which are placed far enough back that there's no danger that their foliage could overhang the holly.  These full-sun choices provide additional foliage color, too: Hydrangea quercifolia 'Little Honey', whose large leaves are a solid bright yellow; Weigela 'My Monet', whose mid-sized purple leaves would match the holly's plum twigs; and Sedum 'Matrona', whose stems, leaves, and flowers also harmonize with the twigs. 


Ornamental grasses provide a striking contrast in motion, loose height, and leaf shape and size.  'Helleri Golden Dwarf' is so pointillistically variegated that the grasses should be solid-colored.  The palette includes yellow, purple, and green—anything but blue, really.  Full-sun possibilities that don't get too tall include Deschampsia cespitosa 'Goldgehaenge' and Sesleria autumnalis.


Minute, sun-loving, yellow-friendly species that could be planted at the front of 'Helleri Dwarf Golden'?  Festuca gautieri 'Pic Carlit' is a great partner in both size and color: It's only a couple of inches tall, and its foliage is bright green because it has a lot of yellow in it. 

Where to use it in your garden

'Helleri Dwarf Golden' is only practical at or very near the edge of a full-sun bed.  There are few plants even lower and more prostrate that could be planted in front of it; see "Partner Plants" above for a suggestion.  The shrub is engaging as a solo or massed as a small-scale groundcover.


'Helleri Dwarf Golden' could also be used as a low hedge.  Like all hollies, it is is comfortable with pruning, whether regular or occasional, mild or drastic.  See "How to handle it: Another option—or two!" below.


In Zone 7 and warmer, 'Helleri Dwarf Golden' could also be planted in year-round containers.


Any decent soil, in full sun.  If the soil can be acid and humus-rich—like you'd provide for your best rhododendrons and azaleas—so much the better.  Mulch is always appreciated, especially to lessen freeze-thaw temperature swings in the Winter.

How to handle it: The Basics

Unless you're gardening in Zone 7, plant 'Helleri Golden Dwarf' only in the Spring.  Mulch well, and water if needed so the shrub gets through its first Summer without drought stress. 


If you're establishing 'Helleri Dwarf Golden' in the colder end of Zone 6, and even into Zone 5, enhance its hardiness by planting only where it has excellent Winter drainage (on a slope, no matter how slight), and where it has some buffering from the wind.  Larger shrubs nearby—deciduous or evergreen—are a help, as is any nearby building or fence.  Even so, spray the bush with antidessicant the first Winter. 


If you allow for the shrub's mature width in your choice of siting, then you'll never have to prune 'Helleri Dwarf Golden'.  If there is any tip damage by the end of Winter, prune that off in early Spring.  Holly usually recovers strongly from Winter damage; it doesn't need to be pruned, but it sure seems to like it.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

If you're planting 'Helleri Golden Dwarf' as a hedge, plant as close together as you can afford.  The shrub is so slow-growing that you can achieve the look of a hedge years sooner.  Plant every foot, or even every eight inches.  It's more important to plant more plants closer together, even if they are smaller.


Let the hedge-plants grow on their own for a full year, even two, before you start pruning.  In colder Zone 6 and into Zone 5, prune only in early Spring, before growth begins; you'll cut off any Winter kill, as well as give the shrubs the most time to produce new growth and harden it off before the next Winter.  If you prune in the Fall, the shrub won't get the extra bit of Winter protection that would be provided to the plants' interior by the foliage and small branches you'll be pruning off the exterior.  In warmer Zone 6 and into Zone 7, you can prune in late Fall or in Spring—but if you prune in Fall, you cut off the gold-tipped twigs.


While all hedges should be pruned so that their tops are much narrower than the bottoms, this is especially helpful—and easy—with a hedge of 'Helleri Golden Dwarf', whose habit is naturally wide and full-to-the ground. 

Quirks or special cases

If you plant 'Helleri Dwarf Golden' as a groundcover, don't cover areas wider than four or five feet.  You'll occasionally need to remove a leaf or a twig that blew over from a tree—or, just as likely, to do a little pruning of the holly in Spring, in case there's a dead tip or three.  The shrubs won't tolerate foot traffic, and their branches are so numerous and rigid that you won't be able to nudge the growth aside to step on actual ground, not growth.  You'll need to do all your grooming while kneeling at the side of the colony, and unless you've got long arms you'll find it tiring to have to reach out farther than two or three feet often or for long.


Although Ilex crenata itself is impressively shade-tolerant, the growth in lower light is open and, often, bare from the waist down.  As is typical for shrubs with very low and dense growth, 'Helleri Dwarf Golden' prefers full sun. 


Japanese holly is one of the most important broadleaved evergreens for gardens in Zones 5, 6, and 7.  It was introduced to America during the Civil War and was cultivated in Japan for who-knows-how-many centuries before that.  No surprise, then, that across both cultures, there are many cultivars already—several hundred—and, always, more on the way.  Extending hardiness more and more reliably to the cold end of Zone 5 has long been a priority, and there are more than a few cultivars already that are, indeed, Zone 5.  Ask local nurseries which plants are particularly hardy where you garden.


Ilex crenata habit can be broad and flat-topped, narrow and upright, vase-shaped, wide and mounding, or fairly round.  Mature size can range from barely a foot in any direction to fifteen feet tall and twenty feet wide. Leaves can be smaller, narrower, wider, or longer.  With the exception of a few variegates and gold-leaved cultivars, such as 'Helleri Dwarf Golden', the foliage is a dignified dark green—much darker than Ilex crenata's counterpart in all of these diversities, boxwood, whose leaves are noticeably lighter green.  Berries are black and not showy, except in a very few cultivars with yellow or white berries.  Even so, the berries are a secondary consideration; mature size, hardiness, and habit will always be primary.  


It would be difficult to have a garden without at least one cultivar of Japanese holly, and even modest gardens might have several.  So far, my Ilex crenata collection is skimpy indeed: Just six cultivars.  That, clearly, isn't sufficient! 


On-line and at destination retailers.


By cuttings. 

Native habitat

Ilex crenata is native to Japan.

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