By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension
The unending stream of gift idea advertisements, the decorative lights and faux icicles, and the frequent appearance of the jolly old elf collectively indicate the season. Only an individual from the remotest depths of the galaxy would not recognize the signs.
The plants on display, mostly exotics, also indicate the coming holiday. Poinsettias, Christmas cacti (it really is a thornless species of cactus) and fir trees are making their annual pilgrimage to homes and businesses in Wakulla County. Their bright colors and lush foliage are in contrast to the native forest and landscapes which are retreating to mute earth tones.
One genus of native plants is displaying its brilliant seasonal tones, complementing the traditional color scheme of red and green. Local hollies are heavily laden with red berries and deep green leaves.
Ilex, as hollies are scientifically known, are common in the temperate to tropical parts of the globe with species on every continent except Antarctica. There are approximately 500 individual species in this genus of evergreens.
The greatest diversity of holly species occurs in the Americas. Curiously, Europe has a single well known species with is commonly associated with Christmas.
Plants in this genus have simple, alternate glossy leaves, usually with sharp spines on their leaf’s edge. Their inconspicuous flower is greenish white, with four petals and is a source of food for native pollinators during the warmer months of the year.
The berries now appearing are an important source of winter food. In return, the birds spread the undigested seed to establish the next generation of this plant.
Humans and other mammals should not eat the berries which can cause gastric upset. Hollies native to the area have red berries, but other colors appear in different species.
Generally slow growers, hollies can be either trees or shrubs. Fossil records indicate the earliest known ilex members have been around since the last days of the dinosaurs.
While there are many exotic hollies used in Wakulla County’s home landscapes, there are several native species too. These fit nicely into landscapes, but are found in the wild also.
Dahoon Holly has smooth, shiny dark green leaves two to three inches long with just a few serrations near the tip. This holly tree is capable of reaching a height of 20 to 30 feet with an eight to 12 foot wide limb spread.
Dahoons have male and female flowers on separate plants with male and female trees need to be in close proximity to ensure production of the brilliant red berries in fall and winter. The berries serve as an excellent food source for wildlife but are not heavy producers.
First identified in 1927 growing near East Palatka, Florida, the Palatka Holly is thought to be a hybrid between two other Ilex species. The broad, rounded leaves have one spine at the tip and few, if any, along the blade edge.
A female Palatka Holly is usually heavily laden with bright red berries in fall and winter, especially toward the top of the tree. The tree is capable of growing to approximately 45 feet having a moderately tight, pyramidal shape.
Yaupon, sometimes called a yaupon holly, is a small evergreen tree or large shrub capable of reaching 25 feet in height. It has small grey-green leathery leaves densely arranged along smooth, stiff branches.
It will grow in soil with a pH in the mildly alkaline range and is very tolerant of drought and salty air from the Gulf of Mexico. While ideal for coastal Wakulla County landscapes, female plants are very heavy berry producers and can form dense thickets.
The local hollies are ready to help Santa get in the spirit of the season, and will decorate every year without prompting.
To learn more about the Wakulla County’s hollies, visit the UF/IFAS Wakulla County website at http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco or call 850-926-3931.