Operation NICE! plant of the season
Winter 2008

Perennial: Possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua)

Possumhaw holly picture
            Photo: by Lon Turnbull

Description: Possumhaw, Ilex decidua, is native to the southeastern US, ranging from Maryland to Florida and west to Texas and Mexico.  This beautiful small tree grows 15 to 25 feet tall.  It has a bushy habit and can reach up to a 15 foot spread.  Possumhaw is deciduous, losing its leaves in the fall.  For the female trees, this reveals the yellow to orange to bright red berries that cover the trees all winter.

Berries: Possumhaw starts to make berries in the summer which turn color in the fall.  The berries are the most distinctive feature of the plant by November, when Possumhaw starts to shed its leaves.  Most female Possumhaw trees are covered with berries, making a wonderful fall and winter display. 

Planting sites: Possumhaw can be planted in full sun to shade.  Although in full sun it will have more berries and growth will be more vigorous, Possumhaw also does well as an understory tree.  It grows well in most types of soil, from acid to alkaline, from dry to a bit damp.  Do not plant Possumhaw where it might experience “wet feet” or it may rot.

Watering Instructions:  Possumhaw should be watered well immediately after planting and then every 2-3 weeks during the first growing season if there is no rain.  Like most native trees and plants, Possumhaw should not be over-watered.   After the first growing season, Possumhaw should survive with existing rainfall because it is very drought tolerant, but may be watered during prolonged drought.

Comments: Possumhaw is gorgeous for the winter, adding colorful interest to North Texas gardens.  There are a number of named Possumhaw cultivars including Warren's Red, Council Fire and Byer's Golden – these do not breed true from seed from the berries, so purchase them from a nursery. To be sure of a female tree, choose one at a nursery in the fall or winter when the berries are present.  Male trees must be in the vicinity for a female tree to have berries; fortunately male trees abound in North Texas, so this is not an issue. Possumhaw can become quite dense; it can be pruned at any time of year if it becomes too thick.  Possumhaw’s dense habit is a plus, because branches with the bright berries are especially welcome in winter floral arrangements. You may expect many requests for branches of berries. Birds are also attracted to the berries.

Look for the NICE! Plant of the Season signs and information sheets on your next visit to a participating North Texas nursery.  Thank you for using native plants in your landscapes.

Written by: Dr. Rebecca Dickstein, Professor of Biology, University of North Texas.

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Last noted update by Lon:  March 19, 2009.