Yaupon Holly: Leaves, Berries, Varieties & Problems – Identification Guide

The Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria), also commonly known simply as Yaupon, is a species of holly that is native to southeastern North America, ranging from southern Virginia south to Florida and west to southeast Oklahoma and central Texas . The word “yaupon” itself comes from the Catawban language, where it literally translates to “ya” (tree) + “pą” (leaf).

Historically, Yaupon Holly was used by Native American tribes for thousands of years as a stimulating beverage, medicinal plant, and ceremonial drink. It was referred to as the Beloved Tree, Big Medicine, ASI, The Purifier, and the Black Drink. The leaves were brewed into a tea that was consumed in social settings, in ceremonies, and for its medicinal properties. The tea was also traded among tribes and with the Mayans, exchanging Yaupon for cacao.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, European explorers and colonists learned about Yaupon Holly from Native Americans and began using it as a tea substitute. It was particularly popular during times when imported tea was scarce, such as during the American Revolutionary War. However, its popularity declined in the 19th century due to a variety of factors, including the introduction of coffee and tea from other parts of the world.

Yaupon Holly is often used in landscaping because of its attractive appearance and its ability to attract wildlife. Its berries are a food source for songbirds and small mammals. It is also tolerant of a number of soil conditions. It can be grown in full sun to deep shade, although it will produce more fruit and have a thicker canopy with more sun exposure. There are also many cultivars of Yaupon holly available, including dwarf and weeping forms.

Characteristics of Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria)

  • Yaupon holly can grow as either a shrub or a small tree, depending on pruning and growing conditions. It has an upright, spreading growth habit, with branches that can become interestingly contorted over time.
  • Mature plant can reach heights of 12-45 feet, but usually stays within the range of 15-25 feet. Several dwarf cultivars are available, reaching only 2-4 feet tall.
  • It is considered a moderately fast-growing plant, putting on 2-3 feet per year under ideal conditions.
  • The leaves are dark green, leathery, and oval-shaped. They have a smooth texture and finely serrated edges, unlike the prickly leaves of some holly species.
  • The bark of Yaupon holly is a light gray with lighter gray to nearly white patches. The stems are smooth and stiff.
  • The berries of Yaupon Holly are small, round, and bright red. They are about 0.25 inch in diameter.
  • Female Yaupon holly produces bright red berries in the fall and winter. These berries persist on the plant for a long time.
  • The plant is dioecious (it has separate male and female plants, and only the female plants produce the berries).
  • To get berries, you’ll need to have both a male and female plant within pollinating distance (Yaupon is dioecious).
  • Yaupon holly is a long-lived plant, with specimens potentially living for over 100 years with proper care.
  • It has a taproot with additional lateral roots. It can sprout readily from the roots, forming clumps of shoots if not managed.
  • It thrives in warm climates and is classified as USDA zones 7-9. This means it can withstand winter temperatures as low as 0°F for short periods.
  • Sun tolerance: Full sun to deep shade (although more sun means more berries)
  • Drought tolerance: Once established, Yaupon holly is quite drought tolerant.
  • Salt tolerance: Many cultivars show good tolerance to salt spray.
  • Pests and diseases: It is generally resistant to most pests and diseases.

Identification of Yaupon Holly (Pictures)

Leaves

Berries

Bark

Flowers

Varieties of Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria)

VarietyDescriptionSizeGrowth RateBerry Color
Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana’Compact, slow-growing, dwarf variety4 ftSlowRed
Ilex vomitoria ‘Pendula’Weeping habit, cascading branches20 ftModerateRed
Ilex vomitoria ‘Folsom’s Weeping’Smaller, compact weeping variety6 ftModerateRed
Ilex vomitoria ‘Pride of Houston’Large, upright variety, heavy berry producer20 ftModerateRed
Ilex vomitoria ‘Schilling’s Dwarf’Slow-growing, compact variety, highly salt tolerant3 ftSlowRed
Ilex vomitoria ‘Stokes Dwarf’Compact variety, drought and flood tolerant2-3 ftModerateRed
Ilex vomitoria ‘Will Fleming’Large, upright variety, drought and salt-spray tolerant15 ftModerateRed

Problems associated with growing Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria)

Transplant Shock: Yaupon holly can experience transplant shock when moved from one location to another. This can result in wilting, yellowing leaves, and stunted growth. To minimize transplant shock, it’s best to transplant Yaupon holly in the cooler months and keep the soil moist but not waterlogged.

Iron Chlorosis: In some soil conditions, particularly those with high pH or poor drainage, it can develop iron chlorosis. This shows up as yellowing leaves with green veins.

Scale and Other Pests: Although uncommon, Yaupon holly can be susceptible to scale insects, whiteflies, and spider mites, especially if stressed by other factors. Scale insects can infest Yaupon holly, sucking the sap from the plant and causing yellow spots on the leaves.

Fungal Diseases: Fungal diseases like leaf spot, leaf rot, and powdery mildew can occasionally occur, particularly in situations with poor air circulation or excessive moisture. These fungal infections can cause brown spots on the leaves and eventually lead to leaf drop.

Overaggressive Growth: Yaupon holly can sprout readily from its roots, potentially forming unwanted clumps.

Sunburn: While it tolerates some shade, young plants or those recently transplanted can be susceptible to sunburn if placed in full sun right away.

Berry Mess: The bright red berries of Yaupon holly, while attractive to birds, can also create a mess when they fall.

Root Rot: Yaupon holly can suffer from root rot if the soil is too wet.

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