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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Saturday - October 05, 2013

From: Livingston, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Diseases and Disorders, Trees
Title: Problems with Savannah holly from Livingston TX
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

Our Savannah Holly standards, planted in spring 2012, are now 10' tall, with 2-3" caliper trunks at the base. Some are in decline or have died. We thought the ribbons holding them to the nursery's stakes may be too tight now. We discovered that even the healthier trunks are so limber that they cannot stand alone. Is this normal? How long should they remain staked? Thank you.

ANSWER:

First, we need to tell you that there is no Savannah Holly in our Native Plant Database. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, home of Mr. Smarty Plants, is committed to the growth, propagation and protection of plants native not only to North America but to the area in which those plants are being grown; in your case, Polk County in southeast Texas. Some research online produced the fact that this was known as Ilex x attentuata, the "x" meaning it was a cross beween two plants. Hybrids do not ordinarily appear in our database and are not considered native. When we searched the Internet on Ilex x attenuata, we found a University of Florida IFAS Extension article with this statement:

"Foster holly is the common name attached to five different interspecific hybrids (Ilex cassine x Ilex opaca) introduced into cultivation in the 1950s by E. E. Foster of Foster Nursery in Bessemer, Alabama." Also in that article, note this comment on what condition the branches should be in: "Many trees are grown with a central trunk and skinny lateral branches, although some nurseries offer those with several upright trunks growing straight up through the crown."

So, at least we have a clue on what characteristics this plant should have. As it happens, both Ilex cassine (Dahoon) and Ilex opaca (American holly) are native to North America. With that information, we can try to surmise an answer to your question. We could find no reason for any member of the genus Ilex to have "droopy" limbs, and certainly, if they were correctly planted, few if any of the plants should have died. Looking at the webpage for Ilex opaca (American holly) (which you should also do), we found these growing conditions:

"Growing Conditions

Water Use: Medium
Light Requirement: Sun , Part Shade , Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry , Wet
Soil pH: Acidic (pH<6.8)
CaCO3 Tolerance: Low
Drought Tolerance: Low , Medium
Cold Tolerant: yes
Heat Tolerant: yes
Soil Description: Moist, well-drained, acidic soils. Acid-based, Sandy, Sandy Loam, Medium Loam. Not so good in clay.
Conditions Comments: For clay soils in areas of high humidity (like Houston), cultivar Savannah is recommended."

Notice the last line, which indicates you have the right plant in the right place.

Obviously, we have no pictures of Ilex x attenuata in our Native Plant Image Gallery, nor do we have any pictures of Ilex cassine (Dahoon), so we are providing three pictures of Ilex opaca (American holly) below, to indicate how the structure of the holly should look.

Without having any more information, all we can figure out is that the plant was somehow improperly trimmed prior to your purchase, or was planted in inappropriate growing conditions, causing the branches to behave differently from what you should expect. About the best we can recommend is that you wait until cooler weather, and prune those "droopy" branches. From there, it is sink or swim; hopefully the plants will then develop into nice upright trees with a central leader and no need to stake or tie up the branches.
From a USDA Forest Service webpage on this plant:
"Trunk and Branches
Trunk/bark/branches: bark is thin and easily damaged from mechanical impact; grow mostly upright and will not droop; not particularly showy; should be grown with a single leader; no thorns.
Pruning requirement:
Needs little pruning to develop a strong structure."
 

From the Image Gallery


American holly
Ilex opaca

American holly
Ilex opaca

American holly
Ilex opaca

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