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Friday, December 13, 2013

Jolly Holly

Possumhaw, Ilex decidua

One of the brightest colors in the winter landscape belongs to the red berries of our native species of hollies.  While approximately 600 species exists worldwide in the genus Ilex, in our area we have Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria) and Possumhaw (Ilex decidua).  The first is naturally found in both dry and wet habitats, while the second thrives in generally moist woods.  Each, however, has their own unique characteristics, and they are hinted at in their scientific names.

Yaupon Holly, Ilex vomitoria

Yaupon Holly is a large evergreen shrub or small tree with small, shiny alternate leaves that have rounded toothed edges.  Little white flowers appear in April and May, followed by quarter-inch bright red fruits in fall and winter.  The species name 'vomitoria' means exactly what it sounds like, as early Europeans witnessed Native Americans consuming large amounts of a 'black drink' to induce vomiting as part of a purification ritual.  Steeped from toasted leaves and bark of this plant, this tea-like drink contained large amounts of the stimulants caffeine and theobromine, and is related to yerba mate, which is a traditional and still popular South American drink brewed from a different but related holly species.

Possumhaw, Ilex decidua

Possumhaw is also a large shrub or small tree with simple alternate leaves that are round at the tip and tapered at the base, but as suggested by its species name 'decidua', it is deciduous and loses its leaves in the winter.  That's when Possumhaw shines, however, spending most of the winter season with its’ bare branches adorned by bright red-orange berries.  Sometimes referred to as Winterberry, Deciduous Holly, or Swamp Holly, it is the larval food plant for the Dusky-blue Groundstreak butterfly.      

Grouping both of these hollies in your landscape with Carolina Buckthorn, Mexican Buckeye, Texas Redbud, and Spicebush creates a colorful and natural understory for an attractive woodland garden. Hollies are dioecious, meaning each plant is either male or female. The male plant provides the pollen, which is carried by bees up to a half-mile to a female plant, and used to pollinate it.  The berries on the female plant, while slightly toxic to humans, provide an important winter food source for small mammals and many different bird species, such as American robins, cedar waxwings, and northern mockingbirds.

Hollies have long been associated with the holiday season, with the roots of this tradition beginning in Europe and eventually brought to the New World. Over hundreds of years ago, druids considered holly to be a sacred plant, and associated it with the Roman God Saturn and the celebration of the winter solstice.  Plant some of our native hollies in your yard, and both you and the wildlife will enjoy a jolly holly season!