By Patricia Drackett, Director Crosby Arboretum
The Picayune Item
On a drive through Pearl River County in December, you might be catching a glimpse here and there of some bright red berries that are standing out brightly among the roadside foliage. And as I’ve made my way in to work lately, it’s becoming very hard to ignore the glowing tree tops visible on the east side of our Visitor Center.
These are two examples illustrating some common hollies found in our coastal region. Yaupon holly is a species frequently sighted along our area roads. It grows in a wide range of sites such as forest edges, fence lines, open woodlands, and waste areas. It is an extremely tough native plant – is salt tolerant and drought tolerant – and grows to around 25 feet in height. Although many people may not give it a second look because it is so common, if you were a bird needing a late winter snack, you might feel quite differently about this lanky evergreen shrub.
For much of the winter, yaupon holly berries seem to hang around on the bush. Where are the birds, you may wonder? Some varieties of fruit are not eaten immediately by wildlife, but will take time to become palatable. So while it may appear that nothing is snacking on these prolific berries, their time will come, and one day they will be very much appreciated by wildlife that will consume them and in turn, will perform the valuable service of seed dispersal.
One of the most exciting uses of the Internet is the ability to see many aspects of nature that one would never experience otherwise. We may never have the chance to stand in a cloud of thousands of monarch butterflies in Mexico, but in a few seconds we can be viewing a video that gives us a pretty good idea of how amazing it is. And so it is with plants. If you have ever wanted to know what eats a particular plant in your yard, simply visit your favorite search engine and plug in the plant name and “bird” or “wildlife” eating said plant and prepare to be enlightened.
This is how I recently found myself wide-mouthed in amazement, watching a flock of cedar waxwings and robins feasting on a yaupon holly. It was definitely a feeding frenzy. Take a look online and you'll see what I mean! Now, I know that watching birds fighting for berries on a holly tree is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I sure find it entertaining, and I bet you know of a child or two who would get a giggle out of watching this with you.
Not only birds will feed on holly berries. Wildlife such as fox, deer, armadillo, and raccoon consume them. I deduced that squirrels must eat them as well, because something extremely industrious has been ravaging the berries in the American holly trees near our Visitor Center deck. In fact, these critters have had a grand time making a mess tearing through the trees, and tossing down leaves, twigs, and the leftover seeds from the berries. This made a pretty atrocious site to our visitors, I’m sure, leaving them wondering what had been transpiring on our deck.
Although it seems odd that squirrels would choose to eat the holly berries much earlier than the birds might find them tasty, they must simply have different preferences. Again, an Internet search quickly revealed a number of persons complaining about the damage that squirrels had done to their holly trees, so this confirmed my suspicion that this critter could indeed be the culprit.
American holly has a long-time and popular tradition of being used for Christmas greenery. Unfortunately, in some parts of the South it has become overcollected. If you gather greens from the native hollies growing in your yard, take care not to strip the tree on a zealous green-gathering excursion. Carry a set of pruning shears with you when trimming greens for your table or mantle. Many people don’t think twice about breaking off limbs from a tree or shrub, but it is a kindness to the plant to remove branches properly and judiciously.
Holly is attractive when worked into a wreath or garland. If you use American holly, this is certainly a project that demands a good pair of gloves, and equal doses of patience and bravery. Create long-lasting holiday arrangements for the table by inserting holly branches into a block of floral foam in a saucer or dish with water, and mixing in other greenery such as pine or cedar.
Both American holly and yaupon holly are evergreens, and make excellent additions to landscape beds located along a property line to function as a year-round screen. American holly will grow taller than yaupon and has much larger leaves and that traditional holly appearance, as well as having a more formal appearance. It can be used as a stand-alone specimen tree in a lawn area, or as an accent shrub in your foundation plantings. While yaupon holly has a more informal, “wild” appearance, it can be pruned to make it a much denser and less “lacy” plant if desired. It is very attractive as a multi-trunked specimen planted in front of a solid wall, with low groundcovers, and accented with landscape lighting.
Learn more about birds and birdwatching in the Arboretum’s “Introduction to Birding” program on Saturday, January 12th from 10 to 11 a.m. Mark your calendar for our fifth annual Forge Day on Saturday, January 26th, which will feature a variety of metalworking demonstrations by area blacksmiths and knifemakers from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Bring in your kitchen knives to be sharpened for free at this event.
For more information, visit our website at www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu or call the Arboretum office at 601-799-2311. The next volunteer meeting will be held Thursday, January 10th from 10:30 to 11 a.m. We are located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59).
For further exploration: Consult the Internet, or the library to create a list of wildlife that eat holly berries.
Have a race with a friend to see who can find the most species.
How many species of birds are known to eat hollies?