Boerne Chapter

Possumhaw, the NICE! Holiday Holly for the Hill Country

My wife knows how I complain that so many merchants rush the Christmas season, but here I am at Halloween time about to allude to Christmas time. However, our Operation NICE! Plant of the Month for November-December reminds me of the winter holidays.

“Deck the halls with boughs of possumhaw, tra la….” Yes, possumhaw (Ilex decidua)! This is the native holly of the Boerne area.

Understory tree in winter, full of bright, red berries, surrounded by gray trees
Winter landscape with possumhaw on Dusty and Norma Bruns’ ranch south of Comfort. (Photo by Bill Ward)

Also known as deciduous holly, this shrub or small tree is a true holly, but one that loses its leaves in the winter. The leafless limbs of the female possumhaw, however, may be covered with hundreds of small orange to red berries during the cold months. In many places, possumhaws are the only bright spots in a winter landscape.

Female (berry-producing) possumhaw is a popular landscape plant in this area, and it is readily available in local nurseries. In some places it is sold as “deciduous yaupon.” The evergreen yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), more typical of southeastern Texas, also can be cultivated in this part of the Hill Country, but may require more water than our locally native possumhaw, and it is less cold-tolerant than possumhaw.

We are lucky to have a few possumhaws native to our yard, and the larger ones are females, with showy red berries during the late fall. The berries on the big possumhaw nearest our house stay on the branches until mid winter, when a mockingbird takes charge of the tree and begins to methodically eat every berry. Cardinals and other berry-eating birds can join in the feast only when the mockingbird is away for a few minutes. The berries are said to be somewhat poisonous to humans, but they surely don’t hurt mockingbirds.

Branch with red berries
Possumhaw berries on Bruns ranch. (Photo by Bill Ward)

From time to time I meet people who tell me that one needs to grow both a male and a female possumhaw if the female plant is to produce the bright fruit. Indeed, the “Manual of Vascular Plants of Texas” by Correll and Johnston says Ilex has pistillate flowers (only female parts functional) and staminate flowers (only male parts functional) on separate plants. This puzzles me, because most possumhaws sold in nurseries are berry-producing plants, probably grown from cuttings. The result is that many local yards have only female possumhaws, and these plants put on berries every year, even though there is not a male plant in sight. Are there male possumhaws somewhere out there supplying pollen for long-distance fertilization of all these female flowers?

Possumhaw grows in the wild from the eastern and southern Texas Hill Country to Florida and north to Virginia and Illinois. Undoubtedly the species can tolerate a variety of soil types and moisture conditions. In this part of Texas, possumhaw grows in full sun in fence rows and also in understory shade along streams and ravines. It can be a very drought-tolerant landscape plant. Once established, most possumhaws will seldom, if ever, need irrigation.

Bord with red berry in its beak
Mockingbird finishing up last of the berries in our backyard possumhaw. (Photo by Bill Ward)

The Boerne Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas provides free planting and care instructions for possumhaw at nurseries participating in Operation NICE! (Hill Country African Violets and Nursery, Maldonado Landscape and Nursery, and Medina Garden Nursery) as well as at the Cibolo Nature Center.

Landscape designer Sally Wasowski writes, “I use possumhaw a lot because it’s so versatile. It’s also one of the best trees (native or otherwise) when it comes to winter color” (“Texas Native Plants, Landscaping Region by Region”).

Another well-known Texas landscape designer, Jill Nokes (“How to Grow Native Plants of Texas and the Southwest”), writes that “if allowed to express its own nature, a grove of possumhaws against the edge of the woods or at the back of the property is truly wonderful.”

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About the Region

New Braunfels, the location of our Fall 2024 Symposium, straddles both the Edwards Plateau Ecoregion and the Blackland Prairie ecoregion. Interstate 35 divides the city of New Braunfels; its path through the city closely parallels the boundary of these two ecoregions, with the Edwards Plateau on the west side and the Blackland Prairies region to the east. The Edwards Plateau area is also called the Hill Country; however, this general term covers a much larger area extending farther north. Spring-fed creeks are found throughout the region; deep limestone canyons, rivers, and lakes (reservoirs) are common. Ashe juniper is perhaps the most common woody species found throughout the region. Additional woody species include various species of oak, with live oak (Quercus fusiformis) being the most common. Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) border waterways. This area is well known for its spring wildflower displays, though they may be viewed in spring, late summer, and fall, as well. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, average annual rainfall in the Edwards Plateau ranges from 15 to 34 inches.

The Blackland Prairie extends from the Red River south to San Antonio, bordered on the west by the Edwards Plateau and the Cross Timbers, and on the east by the Post Oak Savannah. Annual rainfall averages 30 to 40 inches, with higher averages to the east. This region is dominated by prairie species. The most common grass species include little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the uplands and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in the riparian areas and drainages. Common herbaceous flowering plants include salvias, penstemons, and silphiums. This area has suffered greatly from overgrazing and agricultural use. Few intact areas remain, though many of the plants can be found along county roadsides throughout the region.

Our four host chapters (New Braunfels, Lindheimer, Guadalupe, and the Hill Country chapters) are located in one or both of the ecoregions above. However, the eastern portion of Guadalupe County also falls within the Post Oak Savanna ecoregion. Annual rainfall averages 35 to 45 inches, with higher averages to the east. A wide variety of hardwood trees are found, including several species of oaks, elms, and in the Bastrop area, loblolly pine (Pinus taeda). Grasses and forbs dominate in the open savannas, with most common grass being little bluestem. Ranching, agriculture, and fire suppression have allowed woody species to encroach on the once-open savannas.

Source: Wildflowers of Texas by Michael Eason