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Weekly “What is it?”: Gallberry

Gallberry is a common shrub in the Florida woods. It is evergreen and produces black wildlife-friendly berries. Photo credit: University of Florida

There is possibly no more ubiquitous plant in the Florida woods than gallberry (Ilex glabra). One of at least ten native holly species found in wetlands and uplands throughout the state, it is a relatively unremarkable shrub except for its frequency. It is considered a pioneer species, and one of the first shrubs to colonize a disturbed area of forest—a place cleared of vegetation due to fire, storms, or human activity. The shrubs grow in thickets from underground runners, which explain their quick colonization ability after above-ground vegetation is removed.

Also called inkberry, it has smallish, evergreen leaves and produces a black berry. While birds and other wildlife enjoy them, they are not an appealing fruit for human consumption. The blooms, however, provide nectar for an excellent and shelf-stable honey.

The leaf margins of gallberry have slight teeth in the top half of the leaf margin. Photo credit: SFRC, UF

A number of other species bear similarities to the gallberry, including blueberry (Vaccinium sp.), dahoon holly (Ilex cassine), and sweet gallberry (Ilex coriacea). All of these have smallish (1-2” long) oblong leaves and produce berries. The berry color varies, of course; blueberries are blue, dahoon holly produces red berries, while gallberry and sweet gallberry have similar black berries. Identifying the differences between Ilex/holly species takes some time. In my experience, I’ve found that looking at leaf margins will yield the most clues.

 

Side-by-side comparisons of similar leaf types can help differentiate between species. Pay close attention to the leaf margins when identifying these. Drawings from Florida Wetland Plants: An Identification Manual

American holly (Ilex opaca), for example, is known for its pointy teeth that emerge around the edges of the leaf. Gallberry has teeth as well, but only 2-3 soft ones per side, starting halfway up the leaf. Sweet gallberry has softer teeth starting from the base of the leaf than run to the tip. Holly leaves also tend to be stiffer and more leathery (like a live oak leaf), while blueberry leaves are more flexible and won’t crease or tear if bent in half.