Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomatoria) – by Heidi Linnemann, Cameron County Master Gardener
One of the easiest to grow and most versatile of our native plants, you will enjoy adding the Yaupon Holly to your landscape. Unlike the Christmas cactus we featured last month, the Yaupon takes no coddling or special treatment. The Yaupon sends down a tap root, making it drought and heat tolerant. It will grow in any soil, in full sun or shade (though the berries are better when the tree gets at least half a day of sun) – you don’t need a green thumb to enjoy this tree!
The Yaupon is an evergreen, with glossy dark green leaves and a
pale grayish bark. It has small insignificant flowers in the spring, but is best known for the shiny red (or sometimes yellow) berries that cover the tree from late summer through fall. Note that it is only the female of the species that will bear fruit. Because this is one of the primary attractions of this tree, varieties sold in local garden centers are usually females.
There are cultivars of the Yaupon that come in any form you might desire. Dwarf cultivars (‘Nana’, ‘Stokes’s Dwarf’ and ‘Shilling’s Dwarf’) will grow to 5’ tall and spread 8’-10’. If left alone, they will form into a rounded tall shrub, but can be easily trimmed to be a hedge. A columnar cultivar (‘Will Fleming’) and a weeping cultivar (‘Pendula’) are also available. The Yaupon can be trimmed to be single or multi-trunked, and in the wild it develops as a dense thicket offering birds great protection from enemies and elements.
Mockingbirds love this tree, and will flock to its fruit. The Yaupon is also a caterpillar host plant for the Henrys Elfin butterfly.
The scientific name of the Yaupon refers to the fact that Indians used the caffeine rich leaves and twigs of this tree to make a strong tea called Asi or ‘black drink’. They would drink this in large quantities and then vomit it back up. (Rest assured that this was self induced. The plant itself is not toxic.)