The Winter Berry

My brother and sister are both active in local campaigns to restore the creek watersheds of suburban Maryland. Consequently my brother knows the landscape and the forest communities along those creeks pretty well. There are a number of parks along these waterways, and walkways wind through most of them. 

Ilex opaca
Ilex opaca

I was in Silver Spring for Easter earlier this year and when my brother took me for a walk he pointed out to me all the American holly. Ilex opaca is an evergreen shrub with leaves and red berries that very much resemble those of the European holly (Ilex aquifolium), but the leaves are less deeply green and not quite as shiny.

Apparently when the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod (before the whole Plymouth Rock thing) they were delighted to see the familiar holly growing. This is the very northern limit of its range in the eastern United States and it grows only in isolated pockets through coastal Connecticut and Massachusetts. It becomes progressively more abundant southward in its range, until by the time you are walking around in suburban Maryland you are never quite out of sight of a holly shrub.

There probably should be a name for the phenomenon of seeing a plant that is familiar as a decoration or a food growing out in the landscape for the first time. You have this sort of ‘aha’ moment where you make the connection between the abstracted object and the fact that it is a living organic thing with it’s “own life” somewhere, so to speak. I felt that way upon seeing bananas growing in the Bahamas at age 12. At age 23, on my only visit to Hawaii I drove past fields of pineapples. I think I was out in the woods in Denmark the first time I saw mistletoe growing on a tree. It was a little less thrilling to see eucalyptus growing in California, because it is an invasive exotic there.

Ilex aquifolium
Ilex aquifolium

We had two large holly trees in our yard in Beacon. They were probably I. aquifolium or some cultivar thereof. Those two tree taught me the meaning of “dioecious,” literally “two houses.” It indicates a species in which the male and female flowers grow on separate plants. The females flowers are fertilized and produce fruit, so in the holly those classic red berries are only found on the female shrubs or trees. At Spy Hill one of our hollies was male and the other female. They had been planted about 10 or 15 feet from each other, a bit like the “husband and wife” trees that 19th century settlers in the Midwest once planted at each corner of their new homes.

Although I. opaca is not found in the northern United States I. verticillata is quite common. I was introduced to the “winterberry” while I was working at the Wetland Mapping Unit in the forestry department at UMass, Amherst.

This deciduous shrub is a wetland indicator according to the U.S. Fish and Wildife criteria. Interestingly it is not a “wetland obligate,” which would me that it required “wet feet.” Rather it seems to thrive in marginal habitats where other shrubs have a difficult time. Consequently it is found in both wetlands and in dry, sandy areas.

Ilex verticillata as a landscape plant.
Ilex verticillata as a landscape plant.

I. verticillata is also a popular landscaping shrub because of the densely packed red berries that cluster along the many stems that characterize its growth habit. When the leaves fall off in the autumn you are left with sprays of color to break up the monotony of your winter garden. It is popular enough so that several cultivars have been produced.

I. aquifolium is the only non-coniferous evergreen in Europe. That may be one reason why it was significant to the pagan tribal people. According to some dodgy sources of Celtic mythology, the “Holly King” and the “Oak King” were twins. There relatively power alternated through the seasons. When the oak leaves fell in the autumn the hollies would suddenly be a much more prominent presence on the landscape. And then when the spring arrived the holly would gradually be eclipsed.

This was, indeed, why I noticed the American holly in Maryland. I visited in April, before the deciduous trees had leafed out. The hollies are understory trees at best and usually shrubs 6 or 8 feet tall. Most of their berries had been eaten over the winter by birds, but their dense, green foliage stood out against the bare trunks of the oaks, basswoods, and tulip trees of the Maryland riverine forests. If I had taken a walk two months later through the same creek valley, I might never have noticed them.


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