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Holly, Burford

Plant of the Week

Burford Holly
Latin: Ilex cornuta 'Burfordii'

Picture closeup of Burford Holly leaves.

The Burford holly has lost some of its luster in the past few years as the Southern landscape has continued its drift from being more formal and controlled to more informal and naturalistic in appearance.

Although Burford’s day has largely passed at the nursery, we still see many of these 15- to 20-foot tall, rounded shrubs in the landscape. They become especially apparent this time of year as their heavy crop of pea-size berries turn red. Unlike most hollies, Burford holly does not require a male for pollination to get good fruit set.

Burford holly is a bud sport of the thorny-leafed Chinese holly that was found in the early 1900s by Thomas Burford, the superintendent of Atlanta’s West View Cemetery. The original plant was part of a shipment of seedlings received from the Department of Agriculture, which had plant explorer Frank Meyer in China during much of the first 20 years of this century.

Burford differs in that it has only one spine at the end of the 2- to 3-inch long leaf instead of the seven or nine inches common for the species. Its leaves are glossy green all summer long but heavy fruit set will often rob some of the foliage of its lustrous appearance in the winter.

I chose Burford holly for this week’s plant because I wanted to talk about the weather. Don’t get me wrong, I love this protracted fall too, but it is beginning to get me concerned. The Burford holly is winter hardy throughout the state, but it is still bumping up against its northern hardiness limit. I have seen it freeze to the ground once in the past 25 years over the northern third of Arkansas.

The damage from this kind of weather comes not from how cold it gets, but how fast the cold weather arrives. The "Siberian Expresses" or "Blue Northers" drop the temperature so fast that the plants are not able to properly harden off for winter and can be killed. The most infamous storm of this type occurred on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1940, when the temperature dropped over 70 degrees in less than 12 hours. The fall of 1940 had been mild with only scattered frosts as far north as the Canadian border, so when kids went to school or duck hunters to their blinds that day they were woefully unprepared for what was to arrive during the day. The storm arrived in midday in the upper Midwest with a quick drop in temperature, snow and sleet, and a 50 mile an hour-plus wind. Over 150 people died, mostly of exposure or drowning in the next 24 hours.

The plant loss from this massive storm is legendary in horticultural circles and helped companies like the Stark Brothers select hard kinds of rootstocks that are still used today. Burford holly, not so widely planted then as now, is just the kind of plant that would have suffered from this rapid temperature drop. It is unlikely that a comparable freeze would kill the plant completely, but it could freeze it to the ground.

Burford hollies are ideal screen plants as long as one has room for their wide spread. Unpruned, plants may be as wide as they are tall but they tolerate shearing well and their size can be kept under control by cutting back as needed. Spring, just before new growth begins, is the best time for severe pruning but light pruning can be done at any season. Once established Burford tolerates dry weather without a fuss. Waxy scale, especially in the southern part of the state, is the only problem that is common with this tough shrub.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - November 19, 1999


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.