Nellie Stevens Holly Care: Tips On Growing Nellie Stevens Holly Trees
By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Holly plants provide glossy, deeply cut leaves and brightly colored fruit year around. Their ease of care makes them popular choices for gardeners in temperate to warm ranges. Growing Nellie Stevens holly trees provides you with one of the fastest growing of the hollies with branches packed with berries. The Nellie Stevens holly plant is a hybrid of Ilex cornuta and Ilex aquifolium. It has an interesting back story and an even more interesting growth form.
Nellie Stevens Holly Plant Info
Hollies are timeless classics that make a large impact on the landscape with very little special care required. These easy-to-grow plants provide cover and food for birds and natural holiday décor for the home. Nellie Stevens is a happy accident between a Chinese holly and an English holly. It was grown from berries filched by Nellie Stevens in the early 1900s. The resulting plant was almost removed in a home remodel in 1952 but was subsequently saved.
Among this plant’s many attributes is its natural pyramidal form. It can grow up to 25 feet (7.5 m.) when mature and is one of the heaviest bearing of the hollies. Leaves are 2 ½ inches (6.5 cm.) long with 5 to 6 deep teeth on each side and glossy green coloring. Much of the fruit seems to set without a male – Edward J. Stevens is the name for the male plant in the species – plant’s intervention (parthenocarpic) and numerous pea sized, red berries appear in fall.
These plants are dense and make a nice screen and can be grown as either multi-stemmed or single stemmed plants. The plant was finally discovered by Nellie Steven’s niece who took seeds to the Holly Society annual meeting for identification. The plant couldn’t be identified and a new species was named.
How to Grow Nellie Stevens Holly
This holly is very adaptable to either full sun or partial shade locations. It is resistant to deer and rabbits and will develop drought tolerance with maturity.
The tree even thrives in poor soil and doesn’t mind mild neglect, though plants prefer slightly acidic well-drained soil.
Nellie Stevens is suitable for gardens in United States Department of Agriculture zones 6 to 9. It is a fast growing plant and useful as screen due to its thick foliage. Space plants 6 feet (2 m.) away when growing Nellie Stevens holly trees for a hedge effect.
This holly is also remarkably resistant to most pests and diseases with the occasional exception of scale.
Nellie Stevens Holly Care
This has become a popular plant in cultivation since its introduction. This is partly because Nellie Stevens holly care is minimal and the plant is resistant to a host of bothersome conditions and pests.
Many gardeners may wonder, “Are Nelly Stevens berries poisonous?” Berries and leaves can be dangerous to small children and pets, so some caution should be used. Fortunately, the plant takes to shearing quite well and, although it forms a lovely shape naturally, pruning can help minimize berries at the lower heights. The best pruning time is early spring before new growth emerges.
Most plants do not need regular fertilizing but optimum health can be maintained with a granular slow release food of a 10-10-10 ratio.
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Read more about Holly Bushes
Smaller hollies are attractive as foundation plantings or low hedges. Larger evergreen hollies make attractive, impenetrable tall hedges or screens.
Most hollies require well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter and slightly acid. All appreciate mulch to deter weeds and keep the soil moist and cool. Hollies will grow in sun or part shade, but for the best berry production and most compact growth choose a sunny spot. Some hollies are self-fertilizing, but others are exclusively female and need a male plant nearby for pollination. Check with your nursery owner about whether the hollies you are buying need both male and female plants to set fruit.
Containerized plants can be set out at any time, but early fall is best.
Planting and Spacing
Dig a hole twice the width of the holly's root ball and at a depth equal to the height of its root ball. These shrubs spread out quite a bit, so space multiple planting holes five to 10 feet apart to give the plants room to grow. Stand the "Nellie R. Stevens" holly upright in the hole and fill the soil around its roots. When you reach ground level, tamp the soil down firmly to secure the plant and water deeply. Water the soil around the bush every two or three days, keeping it moist until it shows signs of new growth.
The root depth of all trees and shrubs in our climate zone rarely exceeds the top foot or two of soil, at least for the vast majority of the root system. Roots instead primarily grow outwards, away from the trunk, where they find the most resources for moisture, nutrients, and oxygen. If the utility lines are truly this deep in that area, roots from the hollies should not be an issue.
The mature size of 'Nellie Stevens' holly is around 15 to 25' tall and 8 to 12' in width. Though they can be trimmed to restrain size a bit, they may lose some aesthetic value (or screening function) if kept too much below that 8' width at maturity. While hollies tolerate pruning well, sometimes excessive trimming can result in twiggier interiors which are not well-hidden from the outermost foliage.
If deer are an issue in your yard, be aware that this holly is vulnerable to browsing surprisingly, they tend to eat all but the prickliest of holly varieties, and this one isn't as sharp as some. Otherwise, their benefits of fast growth and reliable berry production (most other hollies need cross-pollination for this) are what tends to make 'Nellie Stevens' popular. If you wish to use native plants and the location is fairly sunny, you can try Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) or Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica or M. cerifera, both now given the genus name of Morella instead of Myrica, though you may find them listed under either). The latter may need to be trimmed as their shape is naturally rounded or low and broad the former tends to have a naturally slender and upright shape and should receive minimal trimming, if any. Bayberry may be evergreen or somewhat deciduous depending on the winter weather drying winds and below-average cold may push them to be fairly deciduous, while in more sheltered areas they will remain evergreen.
As for hollies, American (Ilex opaca) is native and the once-popular variety 'Foster' (a.k.a. 'Fosteri', 'Foster's') is a cultivar of a naturally-occurring hybrid between two eastern native holly species. For some reason in recent years it has become more difficult to find at nurseries, though it has the benefit of being more slender than 'Nellie Stevens' and has a relatively fast growth rate. American Holly matures much larger and has a fairly slow growth rate it would only be useful long-term if the lower branches that might be in the way of people or cars were removed as the trees age, with branches above this point being allowed to grow as broadly as they normally would. Otherwise, 8' is too narrow for them long-term.
Thank you so much for the thorough response! I took your advice and purchased both the Eastern Red Cedar and the Bayberry to interplant as a privacy screen. I really appreciate your time and expertise.
How to Save a Dying Nellie Stevens Holly Tree
Nellie Stevens Holly Trees can be easily manipulated into the desired shape. They are usually planted to form a living privacy wall but can also be allowed to grow in a natural pyramidal form. At maturity, the tree is between 15 and 25 feet tall. Without pruning, healthy Nellie Stevens trees can grow as much as 3 feet annually. Disease is not common, but as with any tree, the holly can be prone to attacks from insects such as aphids which produce a substance that leads to a black surface growth called sooty mold.
Prune wilting, damaged and dying leaves. Cut them off where they meet healthy wood. Make clean, non-ragged cuts.
- Nellie Stevens Holly Trees can be easily manipulated into the desired shape.
- Without pruning, healthy Nellie Stevens trees can grow as much as 3 feet annually.
Remove black soil that may be growing at the base of the Nellie Stevens Holly tree. Put it and the dying leaves in a plastic bag for disposal. Do not leave it on the ground or in a compost pile because the disease can spread.
Thin out the branches and foliage growing at the bottom of Nellie Stevens. This will allow air to circulate more freely. Sunlight will also be better able to reach the bark and soil.
Keep weeds at bay. They will encourage pest and insect infestations. Pull or rake them away from the holly tree.
Use a registered insecticide at the first sign of mealybugs, aphids or whiteflies. Follow the instructions on the label pertaining to application and precautions. There are also organic products on the market.
Check drainage around the Nellie Stevens Holly Tree. If the water is pooling, this can cause the tree to die. You may need to add sand to the soil or dig a trench to enhance drainage .
Sterilize pruning shears by wiping a cotton ball soaked with rubbing alcohol over the blades. Check the roots for root rot. This can't be treated with chemicals. You may need to dig up and dispose of the tree.
Do not use pruning shears for more than one cut when dealing with diseased foliage--unless you first sterilize them.
What Is the Best Evergreen for Screening?
‘Nellie Stevens’ is a popular holly variety for screens and hedging.
Evergreen shrubs make a great living fence, but look beyond the common, disease-plagued Leyland cypress. Local garden centers carry many different evergreens suitable for screening and fall and winter are the perfect time to plant them.
Hollies Are Great!
In the southeast, hollies are my favorite for a long lived, attractive, low maintenance screen. Several varieties are available that work well as hedges because of their upright growth habit. The varieties ‘Nellie Stevens’, ‘Oakleaf’, and ‘Emily Bruner’ all produce dense, dark green foliage year round and red berries in that persist through fall and winter.
Each of these varieties grows at a moderate rate to 15’ to 20’ tall and 8’ to 10’ wide. Hollies grow best in sites with sun to part shade and well drained soil, and are drought tolerant once established. Deer may browse the tips of holly branches but are unlikely to cause severe damage to these spiny-leaved plants.
Upright Shrubs for Narrow Spaces
Upright evergreens work well as screens in narrow spaces because they take up little horizontal space. Two of the narrowest evergreens available are ‘Spartan’ Juniper and ‘Emerald’ Arborvitae, both of which grow 15’ tall and only 3’-4’ wide. The main difference in these two plants is the conditions in which they prefer to grow. ‘Spartan’ Juniper is great for well drained sites because it is very drought tolerant, whereas ‘Emerald’ Arborvitae prefers moist soils. Both grow best in full sun.
If you need a columnar evergreen for a shady site, consider Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia). While several low spreading selections of this shrub are available, the cultivar ‘Fastigiata’ will grow 10′-12′ tall and 6′-8′ wide. Japanese plum yew will grow in sun or shade and is rarely bothered by deer.
Another relatively narrow upright evergreen with glossy dark green leaves that is great for hedges is cleyera (Ternstroemia gymnanthera). This tough, adaptable shrub thrives in sun or shade, is drought tolerant and deer resistant, and will grow 10’-15’ tall and 6’-8’ wide.
Flowering Evergreens for Screening
Sasanqua camellias bloom in the fall.
Evergreens with showy or fragrant blooms provide a bonus feature for landscapes, providing seasonal interest as well as year round screening. Large evergreens with attractive flowers that can be used for screens include camellias and Fortune’s tea olive.
Though slow growing, camellias make spectacular hedges, especially the fall blooming Sasanqua varieties like ‘Kanjiro’ and ‘Setsugekka’, each of which will grow to 10’ tall. For best results plant camellias in moist, well drained soil in a site that receives afternoon shade.
Fortune’s tea olive is one of my favorite plants for fragrance. Clusters of small white flowers line the stems in fall, allowing their exceptional fragrance to drift through the landscape. The leaves of this dense evergreen are slightly spiny, and are rarely browsed by deer. Fortune’s tea olive is a long lived shrub that eventually reaches 15′-20′ tall and 10′-15′ wide. It’s a great choice for sunny or partly shaded areas where a large, impenetrable screen is needed.
Fast Growers for Quick Cover
Fast growers are not always the best choice. Fast growing trees and shrubs are typically weak wooded and short lived. They may provide quick cover, but then fall apart in the first hurricane or ice storm they encounter, or succumb to canker or other untreatable diseases.
For the long term, trees and shrubs with moderate or even slow growth rates are the better choice. To promote quick growth with any tree or shrub the most important things you can do are:
- Remove grass from the planting area since turf is extremely competitive with tree and shrub roots for water and nutrients.
- Water plants once a week from April through November if it does not rain – drip systems or soaker hoses work best.
- Prepare the soil well before planting. This includes incorporating compost into the soil, tilling in any lime or nutrients recommended by soil test results, and cultivating the soil to a depth of 6” to 8”. Apply a slow release or organic fertilizer in March.
Fast growing evergreens are more likely to fall apart in ice or wind storms.
If you are looking for a plant that will provide screening quickly for the short term, some fast growers are better than others for our region. One of the fastest growing evergreens for screening is ‘Green Giant’ Thuja, a variety of arborvitae that will eventually reach 40’ or more in height, and grows 15’-20’ wide. ‘Green Giant’ is great for large landscapes where a tall screen is needed, but may be too large for smaller lots. It grows best in moist but well drained soil and full sun. One disadvantage of this shrub is the lower foliage may be browsed by deer.
‘Chindo’Viburnum is another fast grower, reaching 15’-20’ in height and 8’-10’ in width within several years. This evergreen viburnum has large, shiny, dark green leaves and occasionally produces clusters of red berries in the fall. ‘Chindo’ Viburnum prefers to grow in moist, well drained soils, but has good drought tolerance once established.
For fast screening in drought prone sites, consider wax myrtle or glossy abelia. Wax myrtle is a native evergreen with olive green foliage, growing to 8’-10’ in height and width within a few years of planting. One drawback of this shrub is its tendency to break apart during heavy wind or ice, but it rapidly recovers even when large limbs break. Glossy abelia can easily reach 8’ tall by 8’ wide and grows best in sunny areas and acid soil. Its small glossy green leaves turn reddish purple in winter. Both glossy abelia and wax myrtle are rarely browsed by deer.
- Use NC Extension’s Plants Database to find more great plants for NC landscapes
- Consult the Extension Gardener Handbook to learn more about soils, plants, and wide range of gardening topics
- Learn how to minimize deer damage and which plants are deer resistant
Use Extension Search to find research based information from Cooperative Extension systems across the U.S.
Visit your local Cooperative Extension center to learn more about gardening and landscape care. Find your county Extension center.
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