Ah, December! Our gardens are going to sleep as the year turns darker and colder, yet it is also the Giving Time of year – and the perfect time to plant trees and shrubs on those somewhat warmer days! Yes! It’s not too late to think about giving to our feathered and furry friends by planting a native Possumhaw Holly (Ilex decidua) in your own landscape. You may know it as Deciduous Yaupon Holly or winterberry.
Possumhaw holly is a wonderful native deciduous shrub or tree that is pretty nondescript in summer, yet really shines in the fall when the leaves turn bright yellow. In winter, red, orange, or yellow berries line the slender, gray twigs of female trees bringing bright spots into a sleeping landscape. The berries feed song- and gamebirds, opossums, raccoons, and other mammals. In the spring and summer, white flowers share their nectar with multiple insects and glossy, dark green, oval, toothed leaves provide prime nesting places for birds.
This beauty is close to perfect for North Central Texas. Adapted to many soil types from sandy loam to clay to caliche, Possumhaw is the widest ranging of all the Texas hollies. It can stand up well to both our summer heat and the icy blasts of those “blue northers” howling down from the Great Plains. It can take wet feet for short periods of time, dealing well with the monsoons of spring. While Possumhaw hollies can be planted in shade, placing them in full sun to partial shade will get you the highest berry production. These are “couple” trees – the females need a male pollinator nearby for good berry set. If you have native Possumhaws near your property, there is no need to plant a male to pollinate your female in order to get berries. However, if you have not seen them in the natural surroundings nearby and you want berries, play it safe by planting both a male and a female.
If you decide to collect specimens from their native habitat, three things should be kept in mind. First, gain the permission of the landowner if you will be digging on private land and do not harvest seedlings from a protected area. Next, select a plant with at least a few berries. Lastly, unless you are very good at digging or can access heavy-duty digging equipment, choose a small plant. Possumhaws grow quickly once established, but keep in mind that large collected plants might suffer from transplant shock and be slow to recover.
Propagating Possumhaw hollies from seed is not a simple process. Seeds germinate best if planted immediately after collection. They may be pretreated with double-stratification, but according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, “the essential element seems to be time.” As with most plants, when the seed’s internal conditions are perfect, the seed will germinate. With Possumhaws this can take years. More detailed information on propagating Possumhaw hollies from seed can be found at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s website on the plant identification page.
These natives need very little irrigation once they get going – natural rainfall is sufficient except in the driest times. They are considered moderately resistant to deer and are generally disease resistant. Possumhaws have been designated as a Texas Superstar® – we discussed those hardy, wonderful plants in the July 2018 newsletter.
Possumhaw hollies can reach 12’ to 20’ tall and 6’ to 15’ wide with shrubby growth but can be trained into multi-trunked small trees. They make excellent understory trees and can be used in border plantings at the edge of a space, as a barrier or to screen unsightly spaces, or as a focal point in your landscape. They need little regular care or maintenance – light pruning to keep its shape and dealing with unwanted suckers from the roots are about it. Possumhaws have a twiggy growth habit that some might not find attractive, but if you have a more natural corner or section in your landscape, this could provide some height, color, and sanctuary.
Bring some Possumhaw berry-filled branches inside for your holiday decorations! They are useful in many ways – added to a tree, table greens, a wreath, decorating a Yule log, or arranged sculpturally in a vase. Enjoy!
As we reflect and plan changes and additions to our gardens in this quiet, calm time of nature’s year, may that calm find a home in your heart and soul in order to make it easier to accept the inevitable changes that will come to our lives. Peace, merriness, and calm to you and yours! Happiest Holidays!!!