The Best Season Ever: 'Whoa Nellie' Holly & Friends

Ilex Whoa Nellie 092019 640


This past Spring, I finally sprang for the gold-leaved cultivar of Nelly Stevens holly, 'Whoa Nellie'. Its new leaves are a stunning contrast to the glossy dark green of the mature ones. 


The way to have even more of the colorful young foliage is, of course, to stimulate the shrub to grow: Another leaf is formed every inch or so of each new stem. My young starter plant was barely tall enough to pinch, so encouragement of new growth was, instead, a matter of potting-up. Ilex 'Whoa Nellie' is hardy only to Zone 6, so southern New England is the northern limit of its hardiness. I'll plant mine in the garden only after it has become much larger, which means several years in a container.


Over the Summer, it became colorfully clear that, as I had hastily reworked countless potted plants that Spring, stray tubers had found their way into the mound of potting soil. 'Whoa Nellie' started the Summer as a soloist, but she's finishing the season as an ensemble player. 


First, shoots of a remarkable groundcover emerged. Gloxinia nematanthodes is native to the Andes, where its small, quickly-ramifying tubers colonize wide patches. See how prolific its underground growth is here, in shots taken when I potted up my colony the year before. I potted up yet again this past March, in joy but also in haste: In the process, I again released dozens of tiny tubers, enabling Gloxinia nematanthodes to appear in about a half dozen different containers.


It's been a happy accident, in that the thickly-growing stems are weedproof and, sometime in August, they become ornamented by fiery flowers. My cultivar is 'Evita', the only form available so far; presumably, its flowers are even more colorful than those of the straight species.


Gloxinia nemantathodes Evita Hedychium Vanila Ice 092019 640


The yellow details of the flowers of 'Evita' chimed right in with the yellow leaves of 'Whoa Nellie', pulling along the flowers' main hues—incendiary orange and red—in the process. This wasn't a surprise: Given the loud-and-proud cultivar names of each, the pairing was likely to work regardless of the actual colors at hand. 


The best of the variegated tropical gingers emerged next. I had grabbed a few of what I had mistaken as dead rhizomes of Hedychium 'Vanilla Ice' to cover the pot's drainage hole. The quite-alive rhizomes sent up typically thick and spear-like shoots, which easily poked up amid the roots of 'Whoa Nellie' and the slender tubers of 'Evita'.  


Hedychium Vanila Ice lower 092019 640


Leaves of 'Vanilla Ice' are so much brighter than those of the classic variegate, 'Dr. Moy', that I grow large pots of 'Vanilla Ice' each year for their foliage alone. Very late in the season, flower spikes emerge. Even they are variegated.


Hedychium Vanilla Ice bud 102211 640


After the 'Vanilla Ice' containers are back in the greenhouse for the Winter, the flowers themselves show; the shot below was taken one December. 


Hedychium Vanilla Ice in bloom 112611 640


My container had begun the season as a young solo specimen of 'Whoa Nellie' but, by September, had transformed into a mixed planting in which 'Whoa Nellie' was just the second banana. 'Evita' is a stylish groundcover that I'll be happy to retain. But the canes of 'Vanilla Ice' are overwhelming. I'll cut them down after they've finished flowering. 


Ilex Whoa Nellie Gloxinia nemantathodes Evita Hedychium Vanila Ice overall 092019 640


In March, I'll repot the holly, extracting the thick Hedychium rhizomes from its root ball—while also, probably, sprinkling plenty of tiny new tubers of 'Evita' onto the potting bench's mound of soil. My 2016 forecast is for still more containers graced by 'Evita'. As long as those containers' intended plants are celebrating hot colors—and will mature to a foot high or taller, which will keep them comfortably above 'Evita'—the inadvertent addition of this gloxinia will be a boon.



Here's how to grow Ilex 'Nellie R. Stevens', of which 'Whoa Nellie' is a sport. Its handling and hardiness are the same.


Here's how to grow Hedychium 'Daniel Weeks', whose hardiness and handling are the same as those of 'Vanilla Ice'. 


Here's how to grow Sinningia 'Towering Inferno'; its hardiness and handling are the same as for Gloxinia nematanthodes 'Evita'.

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