The Holly and the Ivy
I love Christmas music—well, most of it anyway. There are a few that could be crossed off the list, and we probably agree on which ones. One tune I do like is “The Holly and the Ivy.” I’m not sure if I like it because it isn’t played as often on the radio, or because it reminds me of those recorder instruments that we all learned to play in elementary school. (That may be a negative, but I digress.)
I’m pretty sure the song is referencing the English holly and the English ivy, both of which are not native to our region. In fact, English ivy (Hedera helix) is downright invasive and if left unchecked can outcompete native plants. If left to grow up into the canopies of its hosts, it can shade out the tree, which eventually will submit to the ivy’s reign. Fun fact, when English ivy grows vertically, like on trees or fences, it will flower and fruit. The fruit is blackish-purple and highly toxic, so it basically is an overall evil plant.
Now that I’ve convinced myself to place another Christmas song on the naughty list, let’s talk about native hollies and vines that would make your landscapes more attractive to our native birds and pollinators.
We will keep going with the vine theme since I berated English ivy enough. Some native vines that do well in Delaware are trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) that blooms in summer with orange flowers and attracts hummingbirds. It prefers moist to well-drained soils and part-sun to part-shade conditions.
Not to be confused with trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) that blooms in spring with bright orange-red, trumpet shaped flowers and also attracts hummingbirds. In addition, its berries are eaten by songbirds, gamebirds, and small mammals. Trumpet honeysuckle prefers moist soils and part-sun to part-shade conditions.
One of my favorite (but underutilized) native vines is Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). It can tolerate shady conditions and prefers moist to well-drained soils. Its berries are an important food source in fall and winter for numerous species including mockingbird, brown thrasher, eastern bluebird, robin, woodpeckers, and the great crested flycatcher. And let’s not forget its autumn color, the reason I adore this plant. Virginia creeper turns a brilliant shade of red during the fall months. Its distinctive palm-shaped compound leaves with five leaflets appear like garnets wherever it’s found.
On to the hollies. Our native hollies include a couple evergreens and a deciduous holly.
The most well known in our area is probably the American holly (Ilex opaca). It is the state tree of Delaware and can be found throughout our woodlands as an understory tree. This handsome specimen can grow to great heights if given the right conditions. It prefers moist to poorly-drained soils and part-sun to part-shade conditions. Its berries are used extensively by numerous birds including bluebirds, catbirds, and mockingbirds. Wild turkeys have also been known to eat them. Its spiny leaves and red berries are synonymous with the holidays.
Inkberry (Ilex glabra) is an evergreen holly with small leaves that have an identifying notch in the tip. It prefers moist to poorly-drained soils and can be found throughout the coastal plain. Its berries are eaten by woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, thrushes, cardinals, and chickadees. Deer also have been known to eat them. Cultivars of the species are popular for foundation plantings.
The deciduous holly native to our region is winterberry (Ilex verticillata). It prefers moist to poorly-drained soils and part-sun to part-shade conditions. Its red berries appear in fall and last through the winter, providing food to numerous birds including woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, thrushes, finches, cardinals, and chickadees. Cultivars of winterberry are available that are more compact than the species and are perfect for smaller spaces. Try planting winterberry in front of evergreens so the red berries pop against the green background.
I hope I’ve sold you on trying our native hollies and ivies in your gardens. So the next time you hear the song, you can start imagining a native variation on the theme.
Stay safe and let’s garden together!
Eric W. Wahl is Landscape Architect at Pennoni Associates, and President of the Delaware Native Plant Society.
Photo by Morgane le Breton on Unsplash.