Bay Journal

Holly offers ‘feastive’ touch for region’s birds in winter

  • By Kathy Reshetiloff on December 01, 2009
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Hollies are dioecious, meaning that both male and female plants are needed for fruit production. Only the female trees bear fruit.  (Dave Harp) Birds, such as the cedar waxwing, are the principal consumers of the American holly's fruit.  (Dave Menke / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

With just a few oak leaves barely hanging onto trees, the landscape around my house looks barren. Most trees have shed their leaves. The golden hues of autumn have been replaced with grays and browns.

But amid this monochromatic background, a tree stands out in all its glorious color. Ignored most of the year, the American holly (Ilex opaca) now takes center stage with bright green leaves and ripe red berries feeding eyes that are so hungry for color.

Like all evergreens, the American holly does not lose its leaves at the end of the growing season. The leaves of the holly are thick and leathery, preventing the loss of water that causes other trees to shed their leaves.

The American holly is only one of many holly species found throughout the world. People have always been fascinated with these evergreens. Druids viewed holly as a tree never abandoned by the sun they worshipped. Romans presented holly boughs with gifts to esteemed friends. And of course, many cultures "deck the halls" with holly, using them as seasonal decorations.

People aren't the only ones who benefit from these evergreens. Hollies provide excellent shelter for many species. Birds are also the principal consumers of the fruit. These include the common flicker, gray catbird, cedar waxwing, mourning dove, ruffed grouse, Northern bobwhite, cardinal, blue jay, mockingbird, white-throated sparrow, rufous-sided towhee and wild turkey.

Birds are important in dispersing holly seeds. Perhaps most important in seed dispersal are the large winter-migrating flocks of small birds such as the cedar waxwing and American goldfinch.

Other animals that eat American holly include deer, squirrels, chipmunks, meadow voles, red foxes, raccoons, cottontails, white-footed mice and box turtles.

Hollies are dioecious, meaning that both male and female plants are needed for fruit production. Both male and female flowers are small and creamy white. They appear in late spring or early summer, and pollination occurs thanks to bees, wasps, ants, yellow jackets and night-flying moths. Only the female trees bear fruit.

Usually looking more like a large shrub or small tree, the American holly is a slow grower. It can reach heights of up to 60 feet. It is easily recognizable by its prickly leathery leaves. The fruit, known as drupes, ripen from September through December and stay on the tree throughout the winter

Able to tolerate shade as an understory tree as well as thrive in full sun, the American holly is scattered from Massachusetts south along the coast to Florida. It grows inland throughout the coastal plain, Piedmont Plateau and Mountain regions. In the South it ranges west to eastern Texas and southeastern Missouri.

This native holly makes a wonderful landscaping tree when planted singly and given sufficient space to grow. Many homeowners, though, choose to group them as hedges to screen their yards from activity and noise, or to serve as background plantings.

Hollies are not only good for the eyes but great for the soul. They attract wildlife, especially in the winter as birds flit among the branches for cover protection and food.

We chase away dreary winter doldrums by decorating our lives with them.

Holly Facts

  • The wood of American holly is one of the whitest woods known, with white sapwood and ivory-white heartwood. The wood is used for specialty items such as fancy inlays, wood engravings, scroll work, measuring scales and rules for scientific instruments.
  • The American holly is the state tree of Delaware.
  • There are about 400 species of holly. The only temperate or tropical regions naturally lacking holly are western North America and Australia.

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About Kathy Reshetiloff

Kathryn Reshetiloff is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kathy Reshetiloff

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