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Yaupon Holly: An Unsung Hero

I first purchased yaupon holly because I wanted something that would not die. I was frustrated with azaleas and other plants that had suffered in the summer heat and bright sun of the front garden. I wanted an unfinicky plant to provide evergreen structure to the garden, and, among all plants in my garden, it has succeeded beyond my expectations.

In 1993, a blizzard, a once in a lifetime experience here in the Deep South, dumped three feet of snow atop recently planted 'Compacta' yaupons, a dwarf variety in the front garden. Though many other plants were damaged, the yaupons were unfazed. Since then they have patiently endured blazing heat, draught, and torrential rainfalls. A native of the southeastern USA, this is one tough plant that suffers from commonality but nevertheless continues on as an unsung hero.

Top left: A summer view of yaupons amidst other shrubs growing in the front garden. Top right: In a fall view of another part of the front garden, dwarf yaupons grow in association with silvery artemesia 'powis castle' and nandina 'firepower'. A brilliant Japanese maple grows in the background. Lower left and right photos both show dwarf yaupons growing in the woodland garden, late winter. Note the looser, more natural form of these less pruned specimens.

Yaupon holly, Ilex vomitoria, acquired its botanical name from a Native American custom of using the plant to make a strong tea for use in certain purification ceremonies, which involved vomiting. Not a glamourous name, but I think they are beautiful. Yaupon holly may grow as an evergreen shrub or as a small upright or weeping tree. The females produce bright red berries that are an important food source for many birds. We have a weeping yaupon holly tree near the glass doors in our kitchen, and it is a joy to watch the birds in this tree in late winter. I once saw a flock of mockingbirds strip it of its berries in a single day.We have a good view from our kitchen table of this weeping yaupon holly and its popular berries.

The shrub forms look a lot like boxwoods, with small glossy leaves, dark green above with slightly paler undersides, and the dense, slow growing shrubs are easily pruned into hedges of various shapes. My oldest 'Compacta' matured to about five feet tall and wide. At first I planted my immature plants too close together and eventually had to remove about half of them because they were growing into each other. Yaupon is a common landscape plant, and I often see rows of these things in front of pharmacies and quickie marts, all grown together to form undulating worms. Not the look I was after! The good thing is that I only paid a few dollars each for small ones, so I didn't feel too guilty.

Yaupons grow best in partial shade to full sun in hardiness zones 7 to 10 and will grow in clay, loam, and sandy soils. They tolerate salt spray, wind, and heat and adapt to a wide variety of soil moisture conditions. They are rarely bothered by disease or pests and succeed when many other evergreen hollies struggle.

I like the looser look of a minimally pruned yaupon, and this is how they grow in the woodland areas of my garden. I only snip wild shoots once a year on these, and I would prefer to do the same for the ones in the front garden. But this is where marital compromise has asserted itself. Lou is the owner of a power hedge trimmer, and he loves to use that thing. I have given the ancient boxwoods that grow around the foundation of our house over to him, after clear instructions on how to prune them. He does an admirable job, though sometimes scalping them too severely for my taste.

But a man with a power tool is a man on a mission, and sometimes he casts his eyes upon my yaupons, and if they are growing out of bounds according to his taste, he is sorely tempted. More than once he has sheared them into harsh balls I despise. I prefer to use a good quality manual hedge trimmer, a much more precise tool that gives a softer look and damages the leaves less. Power trimmers, though faster, leave brown edges where they rip through the leaves.

I trim the dwarf yaupons after new growth begins in spring and again in fall as needed. It is important to trim yaupons, boxwoods, and similar shrubs so that the widest part of the plant is at the bottom, tapering slightly toward the top. This allows sunlight to get to the bottom branches. Too often shrubs are pruned only across the top, resulting in sparse or even naked bottoms, not a pretty sight!

I hope you are having a great week!   Deborah


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Reader Comments (24)

I like the habit of this plant. Reliable and tough plants like this one are essential in a garden, providing backbone, structure, and year round interest.

January 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark and Gaz

Your image are breath taking ... I'm subscribing to your blog now! Bren

January 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBren

I have no hollies, save one bird-planted native that finally grew to some size. I cut away the azaleas and, catbrier and other undesirables last spring after the azaleas bloomed and revealed a nice little holly tree that I knew was under there.

I agree about pruning with mechanical pruners rather than electric devices. I am about to undertake cutting back some badly overgrown boxwoods so they can rejuvenate. I need to get Virginia Creeper and blackberries out of them before I get too old to garden.

January 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNell Jean

I love hollies and use them a lot in design work. But this one is not zoned for our area. It really is pretty though. With the way the weather is warming, we may have them in no time.

January 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

Yaupon is a favorite in my garden too it survives everything with zero attention. I've pruned them once in nearly 20 years! Weeping yaupons are on my shopping list to fill in where I need interest and height.

January 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShirley

Dwarf Yaupon Holly is one of my favorite shrubs. So versatile, so hardy. I trim my yaupons severely in mid-February, down to sticks, BEFORE new growth. That way when the new growth comes in March I can leave it and they are pretty for the season, no damaged leaves. Then in the fall, I give them a slight haircut to tidy them up a bit if they've had any erratic growth during the summer. Try trimming them before the new growth in the spring and see if you like that better. Yes, they will look a little bare for a few weeks in late February, but the end result is worth it because you don't cut away all that fresh new growth.

January 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterToni - Signature Gardens

I do remember from a post some time ago how the enthusiastic yaupon pruner sets to work, a bit like myself. Its great when you get a plant which you like and is also dependable, for us in this cooler climate it is indeed the Azalea.

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlistair

That weeping yaupon is so interesting. What a versatile and easy care plant. It's not suitable up here, we have other hollies that are hardier, but it sounds like a real go-to plant for so many reasons in your area.

I loved your description of a man with a power tool. Yep. Things get mechanically scalped here too.

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLaurrie

I will have to love this Ilex from afar since it is not hardy here in New England. It is a beauty.

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLayanee

During my recent trip to South Carolina I saw yaupon holly all over. I thought it was beautiful, particularly the abundant berries. I wish it was hardy in zone 5.

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJason

I agree this is a great plant! I didn't know that about the name - I thought the berries made the birds vomit, and as such would only eat the berries after everything else was stripped bare. Good to know I was wrong! It makes me like this plant even more. I am like your husband - I love the power trimmer! And a ball of box is a beautiful thing to me. Your less-pruned ones look wonderful, though, and fit your garden better. I see Youpon hollies (not the dwarfs) all over town, but for some reason I never see them for sale at the garden centers. Perhaps I'm looking at the wrong time of year.

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHolleyGarden

What a "toughie" the yaupon holly is! Gardeners need low maintenance plants in the garden - so many others require loads of care. Too bad it won't grow for me (I'm a Zone 5A) but I can easily see from your description and photos why it's a favourite of yours.

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAstrid

A beautiful plant with great uses and folklore...I am training my husband how to prune without looking for perfect geometric shapes. We are making progress.

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDonna@Gardens Eye View

Deb - I don't think I've ever seen a hedge trimmed like undulating worms! You need to get out into the garden with your trimmers before Lou and save those yaupons.

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterb-a-g

Ah....I was so sold on those holly, until I realized that the zone is too warm for us. We are 5, and they would never survive here. Darn.


January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJen @ Muddy Boot Dreams

So unusual with a lovely weeping habit but I like your neat buns near the house just as much, I think you have both planted in the ideal situation.

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPauline Mulligan

I remember being impressed with this shrub many years ago when I took an evergreen shrubs course at Longwood Gardens. I didn't focus on the fact that it was native which makes it even more desirable.

It's useful to have a shrub give some green color right through winter. It makes an ice backdrop for your bridge. Yours appear to be loaded with berries, so I can see how attractive they would be for wildlife. Being unfussy is another great trait.

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNorthern Shade

I love a tough plant. :) I have Japanese hollies that I think might be unkillable, which is an admirable trait. Your hollies are beauties.

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCasa Mariposa

A beautiful plant with a dreadful name! Your photos are gorgeous. If Lou comes anywhere near your Yaupons with his garden toy, you confiscate it!

January 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThe Gardening Shoe

I remember learning the lesson that plants that are common, are often common for a reason. Of course, I had to learn the hard way. At our first house I tried growing all sorts of uncommon plants, some even borderline exotic. Most withered, molded, wilted, rusted, or otherwise didn't look their best. Then I picked up a common (in this area) hydrangea, out of sheer desperation, and it thrived! After that I tried to embrace the plants that do well when I am, even if they're common everyday varieties. The garden just looks so much better with healthy, happy plants. Sounds like your Yaupon fits that bill perfectly, and it's beautiful too!

January 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCurbstone Valley Farm

The yaupon hollies look beautiful in your garden. I love the translucent red berries.

January 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSweetbay

The berries are divine... so close to your window you must have fun watching the birds.

January 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn

Deb you mentioned in your comment on my blog about wanting to protect plants from voles -- I use a three gallon plastic pot with the bottom cut out and mulch with gravel on top.

January 13, 2013 | Unregistered Commentersweetbay
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