Flora Fact: Winter Color
Yaupon holly adds a festive touch, but beware of berries that stain.
By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers
For holiday wreaths and decorations, Mary Anne Pickens, who lives near Columbus, doesn’t advise using yaupon holly because the berries stain so badly. However, she’s found another Christmas-y use for the native holly.
“I despise seeing artificial poinsettias in cemeteries,” explains Pickens, a past president of the Native Plant Society of Texas. “So my husband and I fix up bouquets of greenery for the graves of our parents and grandparents. We gather yaupon, cedar and pine from our pasture, then I arrange them in flowerpots filled with wet sand. It’s amazing how long they stay pretty! Since they’re outside, it doesn’t matter about the berries.”
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is an evergreen shrub or small tree and is found primarily in the moist woods and limestone uplands of Southeast and Central Texas. Tiny flowers on female yaupons in the fall yield red berries that — though poisonous to humans — feed birds and mammals.
Native Americans once brewed a strong tonic from yaupon leaves and twigs, both of which contain caffeine. Tribes would sometimes guzzle the “black drink” to induce vomiting (hence, the species name of vomitoria). However, yaupon leaves contain no toxins and yield a fine tea. Just roast some leaves in the oven until they’re brown.
Don’t let non-native, invasive pyracantha (Pyracantha coccinea) — a yaupon look-alike with nasty thorns — fool you. Pyracantha fruit resemble tiny beefsteak tomatoes; yaupon berries are more rounded. Possumhaw (Ilex decidua) — yaupon’s close cousin — produces similar berries but on bare branches.