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'Tis the Season to Do Holly

With December in full swing, holly is everywhere — in decorations, cards, lights, lampposts, and, of course, wreaths.  Its pointed evergreen leaves and iconic red berries are a delight for the senses, and for wildlife!

As winter solstice approaches, the native American Holly, Ilex opaca, provides that pop of color in an otherwise drab and dreary landscape:  a reminder that the land and everything on it aren’t dead and dormant.  Especially in the cooler parts of our state,  that green and red splash can’t help but catch the attention of both humans and birds.

Wherever you are in South Carolina, planting an American Holly in your yard provides a haven for wildlife all year round.

In winter, evergreen leaves provide shelter from inclement weather for birds, as well as a place to hide from predators.  And the berries are the ultimate avian treat.  Large flocks of Cedar Waxwings or American Robins may descend on your hollies and strip them clean in a few days’ time, only to move on to the next holly nearby.  Many other birds also feed on the berries, though not in the swarm-of-locust style of waxwings and robins.

After the birds have picked clean the branches, tiny white and green flowers spring forth. Depending on your location, the blooms can occur from March until June. They attract butterflies, and even serve as a larval host for a plucky little insect called Henry’s Elfin Butterfly.  Then birds and other critters use the holly’s sheltered canopy for nesting sites to raise their young under the protection of its dense and spiky crown.

For those who want this year-round delight to grace their landscape, the holly is a relatively easy tree to host.  It’s an understory tree that does well in full sun to shade — though more sun will mean more berries.  It’s also great for screening, in case you have “that” neighbor (you know the one).

Only female holly plants grow berries.  So if you want to offer festive red treats to your feathered friends, you’ll need to make sure there’s a male of the same exact species nearby so that the female is properly pollinated.  And no snacking — the fruit that’s so delicious for birds is poisonous for humans.

Finally, note that in ancient cultures the holly was thought to offer protection.  Bathe your babies in the rainwater that drips from its leaves.  Plant a holly near your house to avert a lightning strike.  Never cut down a holly, and don’t trim the ones that pop up in your plantings.  Their spiky shape obstructs witches who run along the tops of hedges.  As everyone surely knows.  :)

So let’s appreciate this beautiful native plant as it graces homes, store fronts, cards, wreaths, doorways, and rather a lot of commercials this season.  Consider picking one up from your local native plant nursery, so that you and the birds can enjoy it all year long!