Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series on holly plants.
In Part 1 of "Haul out the hollies," we learned that early settlers to this country were comforted when they found the American holly, which reminded them of home. What they didn't know was that to Native Americans, the Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) was as familiar as the corner coffee shop.
Yaupon hollies contain caffeine in the stems and leaves that were used extensively by Native Americans as their equivalent of a morning cup of Joe. Ceremonial uses included downing copious amounts of "Black Drink," as they called it, until they, well, vomited, hence the expressive botanical name, "vomitoria." This descriptive name leads people to believe this plant to be toxic. It wasn't the drink itself that made them purge, it was the sheer volume of the beverage consumed.
Native from Virginia to Florida and westward through Texas, this tough evergreen holly thrives in a wide range of sites tolerating salt spray, partial shade, full sun and a wide range of soil types. Providing cover and food for wildlife, the Yaupon holly supports many song and game birds as well as mammals such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, and armadillos, according to the USDA Plant Database.
With jewel-like red berries, small leaved, gray-green foliage and interesting gray bark, Yaupon hollies provide great winter interest with virtually no pest or disease problems.
A range of available cultivars means there is a Yaupon holly for every landscape situation. The straight species can be trained into a small tree by regularly removing lower limbs and emerging sprouts from the base. With proper care, they form vase-shape trees with mature heights of 15 to 25 feet over approximately a 10-year time frame.
Weeping cultivars make dramatic landscape specimens. Commonly available cultivars include 'Folsom's Weeping' and 'Pendula' or 'Grey's Weeping,' a large weeping specimen that reaches 35 feet tall, according to the University of Florida. Both of these cultivars are female plants that produce beautiful berries as long as a male pollenizer is nearby.
'Nana' is a dwarf, compact shrub that is typically used as a foundation plant and in formal shrub borders. Because it is a male plant, it does not produce berries. Even more compact is the cultivar 'Schelling's Dwarf.'
If it's berries you seek, 'Pride of Houston' is a medium-size shrub with very heavy fruit production.
There are even some yellow-fruit cultivars such as 'Aureo,' 'Otis Miley' and 'Wiggins' Yellow.'
While evergreen hollies tend to hog the spotlight this time of year, there is one deciduous holly that deserves some recognition.
Winterberry holly (Ilex decidua), also known as Possumhaw, might lose its leaves for the winter, but that is so that we might better appreciate the stunning orange to red berries gracing the branches of this native tree.
Winterberry is widely adapted to various sites, but is sometimes called Swamp holly because it can tolerate wet feet part of the year.
A petite understory holly, it reaches only 6 to 10 feet tall. The foliage is dark green and nondescript through the growing season, revealing its inner beauty when leaves drop and berries sparkle in the winter landscape. The berries persist until spring, when they ripen enough to be a tasty treat for birds and other wildlife. Like most hollies, they are dioecious, and the female berry producing plants require a male pollinizer nearby.
December is the perfect time to haul a holly into your landscape. Instead of gathering around the television this year, grab a shovel and plant a tree with your family and friends. You will be creating a new holiday tradition, and next year you can deck the halls with fresh greenery and shiny berries.
Amy L. Dabbs is the urban horticulture extension agent and Tri-County Master Gardener coordinator for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.