While there are many native Alabama plants that can be used as ornamental shrubs, there tend to be less evergreen options than deciduous ones. For whatever reason, many homeowners simple don’t want plants near their house that aren’t evergreen. For those people, I would recommend a closer look at yaupon holly. Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is a great evergreen plant that has many benefits to both gardeners and wildlife. It’s found throughout the southeast, mainly along the coastal plain and certain locations in the lower piedmont regions. In Alabama, yaupon holly occurs naturally in the lower two-thirds of the state. It is especially valuable to gardeners in that it will tolerate a wide range of soil conditions and thrives in swamps, sandy dunes, fields, and the edges of forests.
Yaupon holly is also unique in that it has multiple growth forms including columnar, weeping, and dwarf varieties. Typically, in the wild you will observe a broad, branching form with dense canopy. It can be left alone to form thickets and informal hedges, or pruned tightly for topiary and formal gardens. While the dwarf variety is often used the most in residential and commercial landscapes, I think the larger form is an underutilized plant that should be used as a small tree. At mature height, yaupon only grows to about twenty or twenty-five feet. This makes it an ideal tree for powerline easements or other places where shorter tree heights must be considered.
The bright, red berries that mature in winter are often the most famed asset of yaupon holly. They make for a nice accent color to the grayish-green foliage and will be quite showy. If you’re planting a yaupon holly for the berries, there are a couple of considerations before selecting a location. First is the exposure. As with many holly species, the more sun a plant gets, the more flowers it forms—and consequently, the more berries it produces. The other consideration is ensuring that you have both female and male plants present for pollination. I’m not aware of any cultivars that are specific to the plant sex, so grouping multiple yaupons is the best way to ensure that you have both males and females.
As with most native plants, one of the greatest benefits of yaupon holly is its use by wildlife. The dense tree makes excellent nesting locations for birds. The berries are consumed by many species of birds including cedar waxwings, turkeys, Northern bobwhite, Eastern bluebird, brown thrasher, American robin, hermit thrush, red-bellied woodpecker, northern mockingbird, eastern towhee, and blue jay. A number of small mammals will also eat the berries. In addition to the fruit, the leaves are an important browse for whitetail deer. So, if you like a garden that’s full life, then yaupon is a great property addition.
Cahaba Design Studio is a landscape architecture studio located in Birmingham, Alabama that provides landscape design, land planning, and ecological design. As a division of Richter Landscape Company, the design studio is experienced in native plants, gardens, arboriculture, land preservation, and wildlife habitat design.