Reliable Autumn Native Showstoppers

Enthusiastic berry display of volunteer deciduous holly

Decades ago, Wonder Spouse and I planted two species of native deciduous holly on our floodplain — a location where all have flourished. These wonderful natives consistently produce abundant quantities of berries that are usually eaten by local birds and passing flocks of Cedar Waxwings by some time in January — sooner if winter weather is more severe. I think the berries probably don’t taste as good as, say, those of native spicebushes (Lindera benzoin), which vanish in late summer as soon as they ripen into scarlet beads that contrast with vibrantly green leaves.

Ripe Spicebush berries always make me think of ornaments on a Christmas tree as they contrast against the native’s green leaves.

Both spicebushes and hollies are dioecious, which is a fancy term used by botanists that means the flowers of each sex occur on different plants. Thus, if you want your female plants to produce lots of showy berries, you must ensure that a male of the same species is nearby, so that pollen from flowers on male shrubs is deposited by visiting pollinators onto the flowers of female shrubs. I am fortunate to have a neighbor who keeps honeybees, so in addition to the many native pollinators that visit my blooming plants, in spring when the hollies bloom, they are also covered by busy swarms of honeybees from dawn to dusk, thereby ensuring abundant fruit set.

The two species of native holly that I grow are Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and Possumhaw (Ilex decidua). The latter species is not to be confused with another native shrub often called Possumhaw — Viburnum prunifolium — which is why I always try to insert a plant’s Latin botanical name in my posts. Both holly species can grow to heights of 15-20 feet at maturity, maybe even a bit taller. They both tolerate flooding, routinely moist soils, and even dry soils; they are tough native shrubs. I think Winterberry usually grows taller than Possumhaw, but on my rich alluvial soils, both species have achieved significant sizes. When I planted them, I had imagined shrubs wide at the base continuing to the top, but deer consistently ate the lower branches after we removed the wire cages that protected them during their first few years of growth. Thus, my floodplain hollies look like trees, with trunk bases devoid of branches. Either form is aesthetically pleasing to my eyes.

Every year as the canopy trees on my floodplain discard their autumn foliage, the deciduous hollies growing beneath them take center stage. During early autumn, their red berries mingle with the still-green leaves of the shrubs. But by late November, those leaves have fallen, revealing branches adorned by bright red clusters of berries. I think the visual effect is wonderful. Naked branches permit longer views of my floodplain, creek, and adjacent wetland, while the red berries provide bright pops of continuing color — and, eventually, food for winter-hungry birds.

I am delighted by the diverse number of native birds that visit our five acres of green chaos, and their presence has yielded continuing surprises. One of those is bird-deposited volunteer plants. Seeds are designed to survive travel through birds’ digestive systems; some even require it for germination. In my yard, I discover all sorts of “bird-planted” species growing beneath large trees — often evergreens — where the birds shelter at night and during rough weather. Such areas are prime locations for the appearance of non-native invasive exotic species, such as Asian Bittersweet, Mahonia, and several species of Ligustrum and Elaeagnus.

But those locations also yield volunteers of native plants, likely from fruits eaten off of plants in my yard. Thus, I now have an abundance of spicebush growing on my property; there were none until I planted three over twenty years ago. I’m also starting to see quite a few native Beautyberries now. The biggest volunteer surprise, however, was the appearance of two bird-planted deciduous hollies at the top of our hill just outside the fence that protects our vegetable garden from marauding deer. The two shrubs are growing quite close to each other, their branches intertwining. And most wonderful of all, one is male, and the other is female. I was so stunned when I realized the identity of these plants that I decided to leave them where they appeared. Now, a few years later, they are about 12 feet tall, and the female is so laden with ripe red berries right now that everyone who encounters her gasps in surprised delight.

I suspect her fruit set is especially impressive for two reasons. First, her branches are intertwined with those of the adjacent male plant, so proximity to pollen is maximized. On top of that, my neighbor’s bee hives are less than 100 feet from these plants. These shrubs literally buzz with honeybee activity when they are blooming.

I suspect these volunteers are Winterberries, but I have not tried to verify this. Frankly, I don’t care. I know they are native, beautiful, and beloved by birds — especially a Mockingbird that defends the female shrub against all comers as soon as the berries begin to show color. Every morning, he perches on one of the top branches of the berry-adorned female shrub and demonstrates the versatility of his vocal repertoire for all to hear. He tolerates my proximity as I work in the vegetable garden — as long as I am careful to greet him with respect and avoid lingering too long in front of his winter pantry. It’s a mutually agreeable arrangement.

Soon her leaves will drop, and this volunteer Ilex’s display will be even more spectacular.

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