Yaupon holly

Ilex vomitoria
Family: Aquifoliaceae

Natural History

Yaupon holly, sometimes called just yaupon, is a fast-growing native of the southeastern United States. It sprouts readily from roots and is widely dispersed by birds that consume its berries. It grows in a wide variety of habitats including scrub, upland forests, and coastal areas.

Yaupon is an important wildlife food especially during winter months when the persistent berries are eaten by numerous birds and mammals. Wild turkey, bob-white quail, bluejays, mockingbirds, and towhees all consume the fruits along with raccoons, skunks, opossums, and rodents. White-tailed deer also browse on the vegetation. The foliage provides nesting sites and protective cover as well.

American Indians used the foliage of this shrub for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. Tribes would gather the leaves to brew a tea-like drink called 'black drink'. Since leaves and twigs of yaupon holly contain caffeine, the black drink would be high in caffeine and was also used to cause vomiting, hence the specific epithet of "vomitoria."

The evergreen foliage and bright red berries make it a popular Christmas decoration and landscape plant. The trees are often trimmed into hedges for natural screening or borders and used in the art of topiary or plant sculpture since it prunes easily. Yaupon is very tolerant of drought and sea salt.

Yaupon holly is similar to dahoon holly (Ilex cassine) but yaupon has smaller, more elliptical leaves with margins that are more toothed.

Yaupon holly grows from Virginia to Florida and west to Texas and Oklahoma. It is found at elevations up to 500'.


Identifying Characteristics

Size/Form: Yaupon holly is an upright, evergreen shrub or small tree that usually grows 20' to 30' in height. It is characterized by a rounded, open crown.
Leaves: The small leaves are simple, alternately arranged, less than 2" long, and ovate to elliptical in shape. They are thick, leathery and dark green on top and paler underneath. Leaf bases and tips are both usually rounded. Margins are scalloped to serrate.
Fruit: The fruit is a shiny, round, red berry and may persist throughout the winter months. The fruits are abundant and are borne in small clusters.
Bark: The bark on young plants is smooth, and light gray while older plants have thin, slightly scaly, brown bark.
Habitat: Yaupon holly grows in moist soils in forest understory. It may also be found in coastal and inland scrubs, other coastal areas, and river swamps.



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