Our wonderful native yaupon holly is in its prime at this time of year - loaded with beautiful shiny red berries and full with small, dark green leaves. It is a very attractive plant at any time of year; it keeps its leaves year-round, sports dainty white blossoms in April or May, followed in early fall by the scarlet berries on the female plants.
Yaupon holly is easy to grow – it is not at all particular about soil type or the amount of sunlight, and once established needs very little water, although it can handle moist conditions as well. As an understory plant it does well in shade or part-sun, but also grows well in full sun. As with most flowering and fruiting plants, it produces most heavily with six or more hours of sun. Bonus-it is very deer resistant!
Often called simply yaupon, it forms a dense shrub or small tree. The form can be upright or weeping, and there are dwarf varieties of the shrub type. Trees can have single or multiple trunks. Its height depends on the form and where it is growing; yaupon often grow to about 8 feet tall, but can easily grow to 20 feet, and may get up to 45 feet tall.
Yaupon’s scientific name is Ilex vomitoria. The leaves, which contain caffeine, have long been used to make tea. Despite its ‘lovely’ species name, the plant itself does not cause vomiting. It is said that Native Americans drank yaupon tea in large quantities ceremonially and then vomited it back up, which is how it got the name although the vomiting was either self-induced or due to other ingredients in the drink. It was commonly used as a hospitality drink. The taste is similar to the closely related South American yerba mate, made from Ilex paraguariensis.
Yaupon holly does not have the many-pointed (and pokey) glossy leaves that many think of when they hear the word ‘holly’, but it is in the same genus, Ilex, and is closely related. It is native to the southeastern section of the U.S., from southern Virginia south to Florida and west to southeast Oklahoma and a large area of Texas.
It is a very important part of the live oak-red bay woodland of our area, usually growing as an understory plant. Being native to this area, it is very tolerant of the extremes of heat and cold that we experience, including the big freeze of February. Growing native plants is critical to native insects, birds, and mammals.
Do not confuse yaupon with the extremely invasive and fast-growing Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolia), which will overtake everything! It also has clusters of red berries at this time of year but flowers in August or September, and has leaves that are about 2 inches long, which have a strong chemical odor when crushed.
Plants available from nurseries will usually be female-but it wouldn’t hurt to ask to make sure. Female plants will flower but must be near a male to produce berries, so check to see if any yaupons are growing nearby. Yaupon can be propagated by seeds which germinate best if planted as soon as they are collected, or by semi-hardwood cuttings taken in the late fall.
A wonderful landscape plant, yaupon grows well under many conditions, provides year-round interest, has many forms, and can be pruned into hedges or shapes, or left to grow in its natural shape.