At an HSA Board of Trustees meeting in 2002, someone suggested that the Holly Society begin recommending a "holly of the year." It would be an ideal way to bring superlative hollies to the attention of the public and to introduce gardeners and nurserymen to the existance of the Holly Society of America. In naming the program, the board honored the late Gene Eisenbiess, a holly expert from the National Arboretum who had done so much over the years to help the Society.
The committee in charge of selecting the Gene Eisenbeiss Holly of the Year try to pick out hollies that are available at a wide range of nurseries, would be easy to grow, and would be hardy in a number of USDA Hardiness Zones.
‘Red Sprite’ is an excellent, dwarf form of the native winterberry, Ilex verticillata. Like all winterberries, the plant is deciduous. In the autumn, the leaves turn yellow and then fall to reveal abundant, large red fruit. The fruits persist well into the winter, and attract a variety of wildlife, including robins, mockingbirds, and bluebirds.
Compared to other winterberries, ‘Red Sprite’ is fairly slow-growing and compact, maturing at three to four feet in height and width. This size makes ‘Red Sprite’ particularly useful for smaller properties, and also for group plantings. ‘Red Sprite’ enjoys a sunny to partly shaded location. The plant is tolerant of moist soil, and will thrive in locations which remain wet for long periods in the spring, or after heavy rains. For best fruit set, plant an early-flowering male winterberry nearby, such as ‘Jim Dandy’ or ‘Skipjack’.
‘Red Sprite’ originated as a chance seedling near Hampden, Massachusetts, and was registered with the Holly Society of America in 1980. Like most winterberries, it is adaptable to a wide climatic range, and grows from Zones 3 through 9 in the U.S. and Canada. ‘Red Sprite’ is readily propagated by softwood cuttings, and container-grown specimens are available from many nurseries including mail order sources.