Native landscape plants are gaining favor these days. Most people also desire shrubbery that requires little water and has few pest or disease problems. We also like plants that tolerate rough handling and improper pruning.
Yaupon holly is commonly found in sandy areas near our coast. It’s also adaptable to places that sometimes get an excess of water. I’ve seen healthy stands of it along swamps and streams. Yaupon thrives on acid and neutral soils and it prefers sun but tolerates significant shade. Deer rarely cause damage either.
A plausible explanation of its adaptability might be its genetic diversity. Nurseries carry many different forms of this shrub or sometimes small tree. Some are upright, some are spreading and some are weeping. All are adaptable to our area and provide color in all seasons.
Yaupon is considered by many to be a poisonous species. However, only the fruits are poisonous. Refrain from eating them and ingesting the rest of the plant can actually be quite healthy. Tea made from the leaves is high in several antioxidants. Foliage also has the highest caffeine content of any plant in North America. Yaupon tea was a staple drink for many early settlers from Virginia to Georgia.
One thing I will say about using this species is that positively identifying yaupon holly is critical. Some could confuse it with wild Chinese privet or common boxwood, which are poisonous. In summer it also favors groundsel tree (sea myrtle), which isn’t edible either.
Scalloped edged dark green evergreen leaves are small, elongated and emerge from stems singly. Stems are a light gray color. Fruits are round, about a quarter inch across, bright red and plentiful. Not all plants produce fruit as most hollies are either entirely male or entirely female. Wild specimens can sometimes be 25 feet tall.
Marketing this plant to mainstream tea drinkers might be a little difficult. Its scientific name is Ilex vomitoria. Supposedly Native Americans used the plant medicinally to cause vomiting.There’s considerable argument about yaupon holly leaves and whether they are the sole ingredient of the famous “black drink” used by native Americans and early settlers as a purification aid. I’m not going to enter that fray other than to say it was one of the ingredients. Extremely large doses could possibly do this, but I have never heard yaupon tea to cause these symptoms. Ingesting several berries certainly could. Eating a big bunch of berries would likely do far worse than that.
You can make tea by steeping fresh green leaves or you can process the leaves by roasting them. Foliage is easily roasted in the oven under low to medium heat. When leaves turn brown they are ready to use. Roasted leaves can be stored for future use unlike fresh ones. Leaves dried without roasting don’t seem to preserve the flavor well either.
Yaupon makes a great naturalizing hedge for the outer perimeters of a landscape. Most nursery raised plants are female, because the bright colored fruit is a selling point. A few males must be used in the landscape for pollination or fruit won’t develop. Despite copious seed production plants are rarely invasive as seeds often remain dormant for long periods.
Yaupon hollies also tolerate close shearing and many lower growing types are used to make formal hedges. They are far easier to maintain than boxwoods. They can even be trained into unusual shapes. Taxonomists should have named it Ilex versatility.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School. (firstname.lastname@example.org)