Thursday, December 17, 2009
Although decorating with holly started as a European tradition, hollies are native to North America as well. Many species are quite different from our classic idea of a holly tree -- some lose their leaves, some have black berries. But Ilex opaca, known as American holly, has the distinctive spiny, evergreen leaves and bright red berries that have been treasured as a winter decoration for millenia. Early colonists noticed them, too, and holly became an entrenched symbol of Christmas in North America.
In the wild: Ilex opaca is scattered throughout the woods of the Washington, DC region. They can grow up to 40 feet, but it's more common to see shorter trees. Now is a great time to spot them, because the evergreen leaves will stand out when other trees have lost their foliage.
In your yard: Holly is a great addition to a yard: for winter interest, habitat value, and as an evergreen screen. They prefer acidic soil. European and asian species are also sold in nurseries; ask for the native Ilex opaca. Compared to imported species, the native should have the most wildlife value -- although birds will eat the berries of most species, insects that have evolved relationships with the leaves of the native may not be able to survive off imports. And those insects serve as more bird food, throughout the year.
Do you have a favorite spot to find holly? Have you been seeing the birds go after the berries? Leave us a comment!