December: Holly (Ilex sp.)
In December ‘tis the season where many winter plants and trees serve as the center of decoration, holly being one of them! But did you know that there are actually hundreds of species of holly belonging to the genus Ilex? The holly you see used as holiday decoration is typically English Holly (Ilex aquifolium), which is not native to the United States. A few species of holly that are native to the United States, and more specifically the southeastern United States, include Dahoon (Ilex cassine), American Holly (Ilex opaca), and Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria). All of the Ilex species belong to the Aquifoliaceae plant family.
Ilex opaca (American Holly): American Holly is native to the eastern United States and typically grows in well-drained sandy soils, often found on coastal sand dunes. This small evergreen tree is often used in landscaping and grow to heights of 15 to 30 feet, although in poor coastal sands it will not succeed shrub size. The leaves are stiff, leathery, and with spiny teeth, growing two to four inches long, and are green above and yellow-green below. Clusters of small white flowers bloom from April to June (although for new plants, not for four to seven years), and the bright red berries mature from September through October, often remaining until spring.
Ilex cassine (Dahoon): Dahoon is native to the southeastern United States and actively grows in the spring and summer, reaching a maximum of 26 feet at maturity. It is shade tolerant and adaptable to a variety of soils, though it has a low drought tolerance. The leaves are dark green with smooth edges, yellow flowers that bloom in the spring, and red berries that mature by fall.
Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon): Yaupon is also native to the southeastern United States and generally grows in well-drained sandy soils such as coastal sand dunes, forested wetlands, and pine flatwoods. Compared to other evergreen hollies, Yaupon is a tougher species and is better adapted to warmer climates. There is evidence that southeastern Native American tribes increased the distribution for Yaupon, as they have for many other plants, likely by transplanting. This small tree has oval leathery leaves with slight teethy margins that appear darker green on top than on the bottom. The Yaupon leaves contain caffeine, and the plant is the only native plant in North America that has this trait. The flowers are greenish-white, appearing March through May (male flowers in clusters and females alone or in pairs), and the red berry fruits stay on the plant until spring. The Yaupon berries are poisonous and have a vomiting effect.
American Holly has been used traditionally by Native American groups such as the Alabama, Catawba, Cherokees, Choctaws, and the Koasati. Both the Catawba and the Koasati have used American Holly as a dermatological aid by an infusion of leaves for sores (Catawba) or an infusion of bark relieve itching (Koasati). The Alabama and the Choctaws have used a decoction of the leaves as drops for sore eyes. The Cherokees have used it medicinally by chewing the berries for colic and dyspepsia, and scratched cramped muscles with the leaves. They also use the berries to make a dye, the wood to make spoons and to carve, and the whole plant as Christmas trees.
Dahoon has been used traditionally by the Seminoles and the Cherokees. The Seminoles have used the plant as a soap, while the Cherokees used it for kidney and urinary aid. Dahoon has also been documented as an ingredient in “Black Drink”, which is a strong decoction used for ceremonial purposes by several southeastern tribes, causing sweat and vomiting for physical and moral purification.
The leaves and shoots of Yaupon are the primary active ingredient in the “Black Drink”, due to the caffeine content of this plant. “Black Drink” has been used traditionally by the Alabama, the Cherokees, the Creek, and the Natchez as a ceremonial emetic for clearing out the system and promoting purification. The Cherokees also used Yaupon as a hallucinogenic and the Seminoles used it as a psychological aid for nightmares and sleep-talking. The Seminoles also used Yaupon for making arrows and ramrods.
Archaeology of Holly:
The McClung’s Paleoethnobotany Lab houses an impressive comparative seed collection that can be utilized for identification of archaeological seeds. Although holly seeds are not commonly found at archaeological sites, these seeds of various Ilex species are helpful in determining which holly was found and therefore (in conjunction with its context and other known information) its probable use. The photograph below provides a side-by-side comparison of the seeds to demonstrate differences in their size and texture.
Yaupon Holly can also be found in the archaeological record through chemical residue analysis – by looking for caffeine residue in ceramic pots and cups that could have been used for making and drinking “Black Drink.”
Holly makes for a fun and easy craft to make with any littles in your life! Homemade cards or ornaments can be made using the child’s handprint and stamp pads, paint, or simply by tracing their hands on green construction paper. The berries can be made out of thumbprints, stamps (painting the bottom of corks works well!), painting milk caps, or any old red buttons found around the home. Let your child get creative and help find ways of reusing old materials! Happy “Holly”Days!
For More Information:
Hamel, Paul B., and Mary U. Chiltoskey. 1975. Cherokee Plants and Their Uses—A 400 Year History. Herald Publishing, Sylva, North Carolina.
Hudson, Charles M., editor. 1979. Black Drink: A Native American Tea. University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia.
Moerman, Daniel E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.
Taylor, Linda Averill. 1940. Plants Used as Curatives by Certain Southeastern Tribes. Botanical Museum of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
US Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. 2021. PLANTS Database. Electronic document, https://plants.usda.gov/home.