By Jake Landers
Published February 2013
I missed the boat in December talking about native plants in Christmas decorations by overlooking Yaupon. Chances are slim that you would find a Yaupon bush in the western half of Texas unless you trailed through a suburban neighborhood in one of our cities. It’s abundant as a small understory tree in east Texas where it is well adapted to the more acid soils, but it also grows well as a planted shrub in the west. It grows better that a lot of our local native plants, and in December half the plants—the females—come forth with brilliant red berries the size of BBs. I never saw it in the pastures of my growing-up days because it wasn’t there, and it had not been brought into landscaping yet.
The foliage is dark green and shiny, just right to go with the berries in a table decoration. In contrast, a cousin called Deciduous holly sheds its leaves in the fall, but the berries are similar, sometimes more orange, and all are poisonous. Both have male and female flowers on separate plants. Their scientific names are Ilex vomitoria and Ilex deciduas, respectively. and there are many common names that indicate that country people were familiar with these plants.
The leaves of Yaupon contain caffeine and were used by early Americans for tea, the original recipes calling for a strong ceremonial drink called “black drink” which caused vomiting. Probably more significant was its use as a stimulant with some medicinal value. European botanists must have thought that its emetic effect was important enough to put “vomitoria” in the scientific name. In detail in the Texas Native Plant Society Newsletter, Matt Turner gives the background of Black tea and its early use in America. He wonders why we adopted tea from China and coffee as national drinks instead of continuing to use a native source of caffeine. Perhaps the scientific name had something to do with it. In contrast, the southern half of South America has adopted a related native species of Ilex for the national drink of “Mate.”
Jill Nokes, in her book, “How to Grow Native Plants of Texas and the Southwest,” gives many helpful hints on tending to Yaupon and Deciduous holly. Commercial selections are available such as “Pride of Houston,” which has been selected and cloned for its production of brilliant red berries. Selections of Deciduous holly have berry colors from amber to deep red.
If you decide to dig one up from the woods, do it when berries are visible unless for some reason you don’t care whether it’s male or female. If you like to start from scratch by planting the berries, you can expect a preponderance of male seedlings, she says. If you don’t have room for male plants she suggests grafting on a few branches of male to the female plants to be sure and get good pollination and set of berries. Cedar waxwings and other fruit eating birds would appreciate that.
The wood of Yaupon is dense and white, so much so that it was once used to replace ivory on piano keys. Elephants would have appreciated that.
Reading The Landscape
Late fall/early winter photo of ranchland in the Hill Country. What do you identify as problems with this pasture’s management? Note the liveoak thickets in back on shallow soil. —JL
|See below for Jake's answer|
Jake’s comments: Heavy grazing in the past has left little forage for late winter, in contrast with roadside production. Though there is no pricklypear or mesquite problem, one heavily pruned cedar in the background suggests heavy use by goats. Livestock survival will depend on supplemental feed entirely. Hope 2013 goes well for you! —JL