Sky Pencil, Japanese holly, (Ilex crenata) is a plant that has earned some serious sky miles. This narrow, column-like, evergreen holly was discovered in the wild on Mount Daisen, Honshu, Japan by my friend Akira Shibamichi. He then passed it on to his good friend, and my acquaintance, Dr. Yokoi, the noted variegated plant collector. Dr. Yokoi passed it on to Rick Darke (the ornamental grass guru) while he was in charge of research at Longwood Gardens in Kennet Square, Pennsylvania. (I met Rick while I was a summer student at Longwood in 1982). Rick got the plant in 1992 while on a plant collecting trip to Japan with Sylvester March of the United State National Arboretum. The USNA then propagated it and introduced it and now it’s grown by nurseries and gardeners across the U.S. and around the world.
Just to keep the story going, Mike Farrow of Holly Hill Farms nursery in Earlville, Maryland took ‘Sky Pencil’ and crossed it with a male selection of Japanese holly. His goal was to develop a very narrow, conical holly with dark green leaves. You see - vertical Plants, especially those with the quintessential Christmas tree shape are very popular, Thuja occidentalis (aka arborvitae, aka Eastern cedar), Skyrocket Juniper and Dwarf Alberta Spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’) are all narrow, pyramidal varieties and nurseries grow them by the acre. Mike Farrow understood this. Successful plant breeding starts with a good eye for plants and a good idea and Mike has both. (His impressive plant portfolio includes Arctic Fire Redstem Dogwood, 'Sienna Sunrise® Nandina, Bollywood Variegated Azalea and Pink Panther Echinacea).
After growing out hundreds seedlings, Mike selected out the six best plants to propagate and to evaluate further. Part of this evaluation took place in Michigan after Mike sent his six holly selections to Spring Meadow. For our part of the evaluation, we propagated and grew on about 1,000 plants of each selection. We evaluated each variety in propagation, as a one gallon crop and then as three gallons to gain a thorough understanding of it production and timing. To better understand how the plant performed in the garden we planted the hollies out on two different test gardens. Eventually we choose the best looking, best performing plant of the bunch. At this point we sent plants to about thirty growers across the country to find out how the plant performed under various climates and soils. Ultimately, after all these evaluations we took the leap and introduced Mike’s new plant as Sky Pointer Holly (Ilex crenata ‘Farrowone’ pp# 20,049).
Sky Pointer Holly has shiny, flat, dark evergreen leaves. The flat leaves make for hard living for spider mites, as they cannot hide and protect themselves under the cupped-shaped shaped leaves which are common on Japanese holly. This gem has tight, upright, conical branching which makes it a great container plant. I see many such plants used in sidewalk cafes and near store fronts for decoration. It’s hardy to zone 6 and just like ‘Sky Pencil’ it appreciates a bit of shade, especially in the winter. Growers appreciate its narrow growth habit. Narrow plants require little or no spacing in the nursery, which ultimately saves them time, labor and money.
And thus the journey continues. Last year, Spring Meadow Nursery shipped Sky Pointer liners (starter plants) to wholesale growers across North America. These growers pot them up, and grow them on for one or two years and then send them on a truck to a garden center near you. If all goes as planned, someone will buy a Sky Pointer holly. Perhaps it will be you. And after you plant it in your yard and watch it grow, I suspect you’ll think about its long journey from Honshu, Japan to your front yard.