Plant This: Possumhaw holly adds fire to winter landscape

Beaded with bright-red berries, possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua) really stands out amid the greenish-gray and tan winter landscape of Austin.

I’ve driven past several of these native, deciduous hollies in my neighborhood for weeks, and I keep thinking they’re at peak beauty. And then I’ll drive by again and those trees look even redder somehow. The birds don’t eat the berries until late in the season, and since the tree loses its leaves in winter, the bright fruit is a scene stealer.

I think I’m going to need one of these.

Growing tips: Possumhaw grows in sun or shade, but it produces more berries in sun. Only female trees that have been pollinated by a male will produce fruit, so plant a male tree too if you’re not sure there’s one nearby. Possumhaw naturally grows along moist ditches and streambeds, so it needs more water than our native yaupon holly, which it closely resembles except that yaupon is evergreen.

Note: My Plant This posts are written primarily for gardeners in central Texas. The plants I recommend are ones I’ve grown myself and have direct experience with. I wish I could provide more information about how these plants might perform in other parts of the country, but gardening knowledge is local. Consider checking your local online gardening forums to see if a particular plant might work in your region.

All material © 2006-2010 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

28 Responses

  1. Carol says:

    What a lovely addition to any landscape! Lovely! I wonder why the birds do not eat them…

  2. Liza says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen those before, so thanks for sharing.

  3. Jean says:

    Those trees are so gorgeous in winter yet so non-descript in summer! I thought the birds did eat the berries but maybe that’s in winters when there’s less food?? But maybe that’s just my assumption. I notice the sago palms in the first photo look like all the ones in my town – completely brown from the freezes.

  4. Jen S. says:

    The birds will eat the berries- but only after they have fallen from the tree.
    I witnessed this in my own backyard when I lived in Austin. Love the Possumhaw!

    Your astute bird-watching skills are paying off! Thanks for the info, Jen. —Pam

  5. Darla says:

    That is eye catching for sure!

  6. Wow, you found some beauties! There are some gorgeous ones on the path at Lady Bird Lake too. I planted six in our yard in spring 2007. Watered them during the drought and they’re established now but three didn’t get enough water to set berries for this year. I’m betting next year will be a bumper crop. I can’t wait to have red in my yard.

    The birds will eat the berries but they’re a last-resort food. I was glad to see Jen S.’s comment above, didn’t know the eating was after the berries fell.

    A warning, fence young trees from deer.

  7. Cindy, MCOK says:

    Pam, let me know if my link works this time. After seeing those pictures, I’m convinced more than ever that I need Possumhaw Holly in my garden!

  8. That is lovely. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. It is really gorgeous. Will you be planting one at your house?~~Dee

    I would love to, Dee, but sunny space is at a premium at the new Penick casa. I haven’t worked out a plan for the front yard yet, but maybe it would work there. —Pam

  9. Wow – those are some stunning trees. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them before, or perhaps assumed they were something else. Are you planning to plant any?

    Hi, Jayne. Maybe. See my answer to Dee’s comment, above. —Pam

  10. Wow that’s a show stopper! Please tell my that the Cycads in the first photo aren’t dead!

    That’s how those cycads look all over Austin right now. Maybe they’ll come back from the roots, but they were burned pretty badly in the cold snap we had. I’m actually not a fan of sago palms, but they are very popular here. —Pam

  11. Susie says:

    Wow what a winter treat, it’s a real beauty. I’ve never seen them before.

  12. We’ve been admiring the ones along the fence lines down here. They’re especially pretty this year.
    I think I’m going to need one of these, too. Or two maybe. They’d look great in the deer grove.

  13. Jenny says:

    They really are magnificent this year and I’m sure the cedar waxwings will be happy when they come through. My mother always used to say it foretold a hard winter when there were lots of berries on the holly bushes. i think there was some truth in this.

    Interesting. I wonder if anyone keeps records to see if there’s any truth to those old sayings about woolly bears and such. —Pam

  14. Ben Thomas says:

    Very pretty, looks like the tree is on fire… I will have to keep a look out to see if I see any growing around here or not.

  15. Les says:

    On our way to Balitmore last week we saw great swaths of them planted in the interstate mediums and around the interchanges. I can tell you it was most distracting to the driver.

  16. chrisf says:

    Yeah, wish I had room in my tiny lot for two-one male and one female. I have wanted this holly FOREVER!

  17. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    What a beauty. Maybe the birds wait until the end of winter when the berries have had time to ferment before they eat them.?

  18. Janet says:

    I really love the deciduous hollies, this one as well as the Sparkleberry. Will have to read more about Possumhaw.

  19. Nicole says:

    Wow, that is spectacular

  20. Hello Pam,

    How stunning! I have never seen one before. What an asset to the winter landscape.

  21. Oh, yes, the birds will come! Maybe they’re on vacation or something. . .I’ve always wanted one of these, but just haven’t found the space for it, since they do get large. For now, I’ve got the yaupon holly, but I do love the magnificence of possumhaw. Great pictures! (Hope the birds are reading)!

  22. andrea says:

    oh how i love to have that tree in our garden. Do you think people can eat the berries too?

    I don’t think so, Andrea. They’re best left to the birds. —Pam

  23. David says:

    Possumhaw was one of my favorite small trees…we had to walk through an allee of them to get to our arch and plants classes at OU in Norman OK. But the trees in your pics are huge!

  24. Cyndy says:

    Whoa whoa whoa! I don’t think it’s grown much in the north, but is supposedly hardy to z5. Thanks for gorgeous pix,info and inspiration!

    Possumhaw’s native range covers a large part of the southern and eastern U.S., as far north as Illinois. It seems pretty adaptable. —Pam

  25. Who needs flowers? Those are serious traffic stoppers.

  26. Meredith says:

    The trees are putting on a gorgeous show right now, aren’t they? My little baby one has two berries, haha, but that’s plenty for now. And yes, the cedar waxwings are going to love all the berries in town.

  27. H. Dao says:

    I’ve been searching to buy a few of the possumhaw holly but no luck so far. Do you know where I can find some?

    Call Barton Springs Nursery and the Natural Gardener to see if they have any possumhaws right now. They usually carry them. —Pam

  28. Donna says:

    Where is the Barton Springs Nursery and the Natural Gardener? I live in Mississippi – do they mail order. I am a mixplaced Texan and miss all my Texas plants.

    Donna, look in my sidebar under Digging Deeper; you’ll see a list of nurseries, including these two. I don’t think either one offers mail order, but it doesn’t hurt to call and ask. —Pam