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January 3, 2014

Neil Sperry: Beauty on a winter’s day

Possumhaw holly adds color to a cold landscape and joy to this admirer’s heart.

Some people remember movie plots. I remember plants. The first time I ever saw possumhaw holly, I fell in love with it. I was about 10, and it was on North Avenue in Bryan. It was on the south side of the street, just a couple of blocks west of Texas Avenue (Texas 6), and my mom and dad and I drove past it several times every month. It was a stunning sight in the winter, leaves all fallen to the ground and its branches loaded down with red berries. We had evergreen yaupon hollies growing natively all over Brazos County, but this possumhaw was a rare gem.

Four years later, I opened a plant stand inside Miller’s IGA grocery, at North Avenue and Texas 6. Dad had to drive me to take care of my inventory, and I’d ask him every couple of weeks to drive me by that holly, so I could see it again.

I transferred to Ohio State University as a junior, and I left my Texas plants behind me. But only for six years. When I left my job teaching horticulture in northern Ohio (Shelby) and moved back to Texas (DFW), I was “invited” to attend Extension Service staff conferences every couple of months. And I remember a really spectacular possumhaw holly between Hearne and Bryan, on the east side of Texas 6, down the hill and in the pasture. I always looked forward to seeing it every time I made the trek to the meetings in College Station. I got tired of the meetings, but I never got tired of the possumhaw.

A part of my work with the Extension Service called me to Fannin County several times every year, and Texas 121 in northeast Collin County is liberally sprinkled with this deciduous holly. Traveling up to Bonham to give programs in late fall and winter was always a highlight.

We bought 11 acres of rural ground here in the Metroplex in 1970, and there along the south fence line was (and is) a grand possumhaw holly. And so my love affair with this plant continues each day that I garden.

Most hollies are evergreen. This plant is a rare member of the clan in that it’s deciduous. In fact, its scientific name is Ilex decidua. Its native range is from the eastern third of Texas north to eastern Kansas and east through southern Illinois to the Atlantic Ocean. Because it grows to 15 to 18 feet tall and 12 to 15 feet wide in multi-trunked clumps, many people refer to it as “deciduous yaupon.” The two plants do look very similar during the growing season. Possumhaw is just a little more upright. And bare of leaves all winter. In that latter respect, possumhaw holly’s contribution to landscaping is a lot like a crape myrtle’s, but with a colorful season that runs November through February.

Many hollies bear their male and female flowers on separate plants. Such is the case with Ilex decidua. Only the female plants have the fabulous berries, which means that you really want to buy your plant during the winter, so you can see the proof of the fruit. Other than serving as pollen sources for all the lady possumhaws in town, male plants have little to offer in terms of landscaping value.

It was in 1975 that Warren’s Red possumhaw entered my life. My friend the late Benny Simpson was a native plant research scientist. He and I worked side by side at TAMU Dallas in the 1970s, and he was the one who first showed me his specimen of the selection introduced decades earlier by the Warren Nursery Company of Oklahoma City. It has larger, redder berries, and the plant is much less likely to send up root sprouts at the bases of its stalks. It’s propagated by cuttings, so every plant is genetically the same. All bear fruit, and all have the same tomato-red berries. It’s the one you want to ask for when you go nursery shopping. Warren’s Red has become a familiar landscape plant in Texas gardens, and you should have no difficulty finding one for your own plantings.

These past several weeks, as I’ve been driving on one particular North Texas farm road, I’ve been admiring one specific possumhaw holly in a fence row. I was going to use it as a plant feature on my Facebook page, but 75 photos later (including today’s), I decided it deserved a more special place. So in case you’ve never met possumhaw holly, I’m happy to have this opportunity to introduce you to one of my favorite friends. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have, since way back on North Avenue.

By the way, my plant stand at Miller’s IGA went out of business the night of a big burglary. As the guy broke into the safe, he set off some kind of tear-gas canister, and my plants went down for the count. I restarted my nursery efforts to our back yard.

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