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Berry Bonanza

Mockingbirds love possumhaw berries - and will fight to protect them.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Every January, gads of lustrous red berries cover the bare branches of possumhaw trees (Ilex decidua) that grow in Tom Spencer's garden in Austin. It's not long before the skirmishes begin.

"We always have a pair of mockingbirds that rush around and defend their berries," laughs Spencer, host of KLRU's Central Texas Gardener. "They chase the titmice and chickadees, too, which don't even eat fruit. Then they go nuts when the cedar waxwings arrive."

Songbirds, as well as bobwhite quail, cattle, deer and small mammals, relish possumhaw drupes, more so after they've been repeatedly frozen. Opossums - hence the name - especially love the berries.

Also called deciduous holly, possumhaw - Texas' most wide-ranging native holly - grows as shrubs and trees in East Texas pineywoods westward to the Edwards Plateau.

Unlike most evergreen hollies, such as yaupon and American holly, possumhaw drops its leaves, revealing a spectacular shimmer of crimson in winter landscapes.

Only female possumhaws bear fruit, and most experts believe that males must be available for that to happen. However, "no nurseries sell male possumhaws," Spencer says. What's more, "I don't have any males in my garden, and my possumhaws put on fruit just fine."

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