Fall is here and the Hollies are sporting their bright-colored berries. Everyone is familiar with them because they are decorative and frequently used during the holidays. We are most familiar with the American Holly (Ilex opaca), a tree which can reach a height of 100 feet and has the familiar dark green, thick wavy leaves with spiny teeth and bright red berries.
Hollies come in separate sexes. It is the females that bear the berries. Even during the flowering stage, it is possible to tell them apart. The male flowers bear the pollen-laden stamens and the female flowers bear the ovaries that become the seed bearing berries. But even a female tree will not produce the mature berries unless there is a male within a mile or so to pollinate its flowers with the help of insects or air currents.
There are a couple of lesser-known Hollies in our area that are of interest. Inkberry (Ilex glabra) is found frequently in our piney woods. The shrub only grows from 3 to 5 feet in height. Although the Inkberry has smooth, lightly toothed, dark green evergreen leaves, it totally lacks the sharp spines of the American Holly. Native Americans used its purple-black berries to dye and stain clothing and crafts and for body decorations.
Our most unusual Holly is the Winterberry (Ilex verticillata). It can reach up to 15 feet in height. Its most unusual characteristic is that it is deciduous (it loses its leaves). The female flowers develop into the berries and grow directly out of the stem, which is actually true of all Hollies. However, this characteristic is more obvious with the Winterberry because the berries persist long after the leaves have fallen. This time of year you see the bright red or yellow berries interspersed among its light green leaves. When Winterberry loses its leaves, the brightly-colored berries persist to produce pleasing spots of color in the winter landscape – until the birds finally decide to eat them.
While none of the berries of any of the Hollies are good to eat and are sometimes used as an emetic, birds will eat them with no ill effects if nothing tastier is available. However, humans have often used the leaves of certain Hollies to make tea. The leaves of the Inkberry have the added advantage of possessing caffeine. In South America, especially in Brazil and Argentina, the national drink is Yerba Mate which is made from the dried and crumbled leaves of the native, caffeinated Holly (IIex paraguariensis).