Sunday, January 31, 2016

Wintergreen - Teaberry

Wintergreen - Teaberry- Checkerberry

     Gaultheria procumbens is a low-growing (under 6 inches) evergreen plant with a multitude of common names. Since these names are also sometimes applied to other plant species, they can sometimes confuse people. Among the variety of names used for this creeping, woodland wildflower are: Wintergreen, Teaberry, Checkerberry, Mountain Tea, Ground Tea, Mountain-berry, Partridgeberry, Canterberry, Groundholly, Boxberry, Deerberry, Spiceberry, Groundberry, and Tea Leaf. Its scientific name Gaultheria is in honor of a Canadian 18th century doctor, while procumbens means "lying flat but not rooting at the nodes" in botanical terminology.
     This semi-woody plant is a member of the Ericacaea (Heath) family. Its evergreen nature, white dangling white blossoms, and long-lasting red fruit make it a very attractive plant. But its needs for very acidic soils, light shade, and dry conditions, makes it sometimes difficult to include in garden settings. Since, like many heaths, it appears to also have symbiotic partnerships with certain mycorrhizal fungi, it may not do well if those fungi are not present where it's transplanted as well. It is usually found in dry, coniferous woodlands in its natural state.

The hanging flowers of Tea Leaf.

     Wintergreen has a rich history of being utilized by people for a large variety of different reasons. Noted ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman recorded numerous uses by North America's indigenous tribes. Several Algonquian-speaking groups, including the Quebec, made a medicinal tea from Teaberry to treat headaches, colds, and other discomforts. The fruits were eaten as well. The Tete-de-Boule people used an infusion from the leaves for colds and made a poultice to apply for chest colds.
     The Cherokee chewed the leaves for dysentery, indigestion, and tender gums. The berries were eaten as food, while the leaves made for a substitute for chewing tobacco. The Chippewa used Spiceberry to make tea that was used as a blood tonic, while the leaves were used as a spice. The Abnaki used it for tea, while the Shinnecock thought it could help treat kidneys, as did the Mohegan.
     The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) used Checkerberry as a de-wormer, blood purifier, and to combat venereal disease. The berries were a food source and could be used in breads. The leaves were thought to help ease colds. It was favored to treat arthritis and rheumatism. The Potawatomi also used it for rheumatism (and fevers) as did the Menominee, Oklahoma, and Lenape (Delaware).
    Wintergreen has a long association for treating rheumatism, arthritis, and muscle pains. Its oils contain methyl salicylate, which has some properties similar to aspirin. Although now artificially produced, both Wintergreen and Black Birch were originally the primary sources for this substance. It was used for quite a few applications, but is most famous for its use as a liniment in such anti-rheumatism and muscle products as Bengay and Icy Hot.
     During the Civil War, Southern doctor Francis Porcher was tasked with finding native plant substitutes for goods no longer available to the Confederacy due the Northern blockades. His treatise contains all sorts of uses for what could be found or produced locally. He included Wintergreen and extolled its many uses. He suggested Teaberry could be used to treat dysentery and how it was used as a substitute for tea during the Revolutionary War. Porcher wrote: "The berries, which are aromatic and pleasant, are employed to flavor spirituous liquors. An infusion of them in brandy is a convenient and useful substitute for ordinary bitters." He also recorded that "it is applied with good effect to diminish the sensibility of nerves affected by carious teeth, and to disguise the taste and smell of nauseous medicines."
     Oil of Wintergreen continues to have a multitude of uses, though now it is produced artificially in most cases. Its anti-rheumatic properties have already been mentioned. But it also has been used as a aromatic flavoring in such things as teas, candies, candles, toothpaste, mints, gums, ice cream, and mouthwashes like Listerine. In the wild, leaves and berry make a fine trail nibble, but beware that some people who indulge in too much can get irritated stomachs.

Teaberry or Checkerberry

      One classic naturalist trick used in night time programs involves using Wint-0-Green Lifesavers. Due to the methyl salicylate and sugar crystal, fresh Wint-O-Green mints give a flash when they are crushed, A favorite night time naturalist activity involves having everyone bite into one at the same time in the dark while staring at each others' open mouths. When done right, the flash of light can be neat to see, and is due to what is sometimes called tribolumiscence.
     Regardless of what you call it, this little native perennial is full of surprises and uses, and always has been.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Striped Wintergreen - Pipsissewa

Striped or Spotted Wintergreen

     An attractive and easily recognizable evergreen plant is Chimaphila maculata. Its various common names though may lead to some confusion, as several plants go by the same names. I like to refer to it as Striped Wintergreen, but it has a great many more: Spotted Wintergreen, Striped Prince's Pine, Striped Prince's Plume, Rheumatism Root, Dragon's Tongue, and Pipsissewa among others. Almost all these names can refer to other plants as well.
     Its scientific name Chimaphila is derived from the Greek for "Winter Loving" and refers to its evergreen nature. Maculata simply means "spotted or "blotched." This short perennial plant (under 10 inches) has relatively thick, toothed, waxy leaves in a whorl around a reddish stem. They are variegated, with the veins of the leaves usually being a light color. It stands out in its woodland, dry settings regardless of season. It is in the Heath (Ericaceae) Family, though some botanists still lump it in the Wintergreen (Pyrolaceae) Family.

Striped Wintergreen seed heads 

     The flowers are usually white, blooming in midsummer and hanging downwards. If they get pollinated (usually by bumblebees), the flower stems straighten and point upwards. The brown seed capsules can stand through the winter. New leaf growth is a light green, while the older leaves can take on a purplish haze in the deep winter. It is not considered preferred forage for deer (unless there are too many of them, in which case the evergreen foliage makes it very vulnerable) and there are at least two species of caterpillars that feed on it. Spotted Wintergreen can also spread by underground runners, but doesn't ever seem to be a very plentiful. The seeds are difficult to germinate and they do not transplant well either. This may be due to needing certain mycorrhizal fungi to be present in the soil to allow the plant to grow. It also seems to do better after low intensity fires. So please do not try and move the plant to other locations or gardens, despite how attractive they may be. You will likely only succeed in killing them. In fact, the plant is considered Endangered in parts of Canada, in Illinois, and Maine.
     Striped Wintergreen has been used by people for ages. One of its common names, Pipsissewa, comes from the Native American Creek language. meaning to "break down or make smaller pieces." This was thought to be in reference to its use to treat such things as kidney and gall stones. Interestingly, some people can eat its aromatic leaves, drink it as a tea, flavor candy and root beer with it, while others get a rash from the oils if it touches their skin. Noted ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman recorded many more uses.
     The Cherokee for instance made a poultice from it to treat pain and rheumatism. It was used to treat ulcers, cancers, and urinary disorders. An infusion was made from it to deal with colds and fevers. It was used for ringworm and eczema. The uses varied from eating it as a trail nibble, to using to induce vomiting in babies, to treating cattle, to even killing rats.
     The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) would add it to many medicines in the belief it would make them stronger (maybe it just made them taste better?). Spotted Wintergreen would be used to treat urinary pains, rheumatism, stomach cancer, fevers, and venereal disease. It would be used to induce pregnancy and de-worm babies, as a blood purifier or a laxative. Rheumatism Root would help with kidney ailments and with those who had gone through a miscarriage. It was even used for pimples and face sores.
     Other tribes using it included the Thompson who steeped the leaves into a tea, the Blackfeet who smoked it, and the Nanticoke who used it for malaria or any type of shivering. The Yurok thought it helped with rheumatism, aches, pains, kidney ailments, and to relax muscles.
     During the Civil War, Dr, Francis Porcher, charged with finding alternative medicines that were hard to get through Union blockades, recommended its use as well. He found it a useful diuretic and a treatment for digestive disorders. He noted its use by the indigenous people for rheumatism and ulcers. Porcher wrote: "In our present need for tonics and diuretics, in dropsy, or swelling following low and protracted fevers among our soldiers, no plant will be found more serviceable than pipsissewa. It is aromatic, tonic, and diuretic. It can be easily collected around our camps, in shady woods, in almost every part of our Confederacy." He placed a lot of faith in its curative qualities.

The distinct variegated foliage of Pipsissewa

     Indeed, this low attractive evergreen has been found to be useful wherever it grows. In Mexico, it is believed to be an important element in tesguino, an alcoholic beverage made from sprouted corn. This corn beer is still considered a scared drink among the Tarahumara people.
     With my aching back from shovelling snow this weekend, I'm tempted to try some Pipsissewa for my aches and pains. But I know it's not that common anymore, better I instead allow it to make me feel better when I notice its variegated foliage once again in the woods when all the snow melts. "Winter Loving" it may be, me not so much...

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


     Partridge-berry (Mitchella repens) is a low growing (4 inches tall or so) evergreen ground cover in the Rubiaceae, or Madder, family. It grows in woodland conditions, usually on slopes or along the base of trees where there is less leaf accumulation to cover the opposite-leaved foliage. It is not a fast grower nor aggressive, but the light stripe on each leaf, evergreen nature, and ability to take the shade makes it a worthwhile consideration for gardens. Since it can root where it touches the ground (adventitious rooting), it can form patches 2-3' around and cuttings transplant fairly well. It is also sometimes used in terrariums but does not do well if the leaves get covered over. Partridge-berry ranges from Canada as far South as Guatemala. It has been used as an evergreen Christmas decoration, but it is now not as common as it once was due its slow reproductive rate and growth.
     The scientific name, Mitchella, was given to it by Linnaeus in honor of his friend John Mitchell, a Virginia doctor, mapmaker, and botanist. The species name "repens" means "creeping" and refers to its spreading, non-climbing nature. It has numerous common names which will be discussed in more detail below.
     Partridge-berry has been used medicinally and in other ways for quite a long time. Its use by women in particular of various indigenous tribes has led to many other common names: Squawvine, Squawberry, and Squawplum for example. It had numerous other uses as well, according to noted ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman. 
     The Abnaki applied it as a poultice to treat rheumatism, while the Montagnais thought the berries could treat fever. The Seminole used it for ailments of the kidneys. The Lenape (Delaware) used it for menstrual treatments, stiff joints, and muscle swellings. The Cherokee had multitudes of uses for this plant. It was used for dysentery and hives, but women had many more applications: for menstrual cramps, sore nipples, to facilitate child birth, and was given to babies prior to breastfeeding. 
     But it was the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) who had the most uses for it. Partridge-berry was used to treat back pains, bleeding, fevers, cuts, typhoid, insomnia, stomach gas, as a blood purifier, and for urinary pains. It was believed to help babies suckle, treat kids vomiting, convulsions, children's rashes, and help prevent rickets. Women thought it could treat labor pains, venereal diseases, troubles with the womb, help babies suckle, and even as a love potion. 
     The berries are considered edible, but are rather bland. Though used for travel cakes, as a colorful garnish for salads, and emergency food, they were not a favored food. The same could be said for animals who also do not prefer them. There is so little demand that they can stay on the plant uneaten even into the following year when the plant re-blooms. Though called Partridge-berry and Deerberry, they are not favorites of them, though will be eaten. Additional names include Running Fox, Tea-berry, and Running Box.


     Partridge-berry flowers and fruits are unique. Each white, tubular flower has 4 petals and is fragrant. Two flowers together are joined at their base. These double flowers typically bloom around June and are self-incompatible. They each need to be pollinated by different flowers than each other, usually by bumblebees. If both get pollinated, then they grow an interesting fruit that is formed when they join together. You end up with a double fruit fused to form one. These are botanically called drupes, and the unique arrangement gives the plant many other common names: Twinberry, Twinflower, Oneberry, and Two-eyed Berry for examples. 

The fused fruit of Two-eyed Berry

     In some mountain communities, newly wed couples were given either the double flowers or fruits as traditional wedding gifts. These would symbolize the joined couple now forming one union, much as the flowers or fruits had joined. What a wonderful tradition and homage to this plant that has so many names and traditional uses. No wonder the Virginia Native Plant Society named it their Wildflower of the Year in 2012. I like this plant so much that I have a small cutting that I've transplanted into my own shaded yard. It has not bloomed for me yet, but on cold winter days when much of the rest of the landscape is bare, I at least have this little evergreen plant to remind me of greener times to come. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Mallard Duck

     One of the most identifiable (at least the males, or drakes anyways) ducks in the world is the Mallard (Anas platyrynchos). While its natural range is throughout the Northern hemisphere, it can now be found throughout most of the world. It is the most abundant and widespread of all ducks. Except for Muscovy ducks, just about all domestic ducks have the Mallard as their ancestor and that has helped their spread. 
     Mallards are large ducks (about 24" and 3-4 lbs). The adult drakes in winter have an iridescent, glossy green head, though it can appear black to purple depending on how the light hits it. They are commonly called  "Green Heads" due to this trait. They also have a white collar around their necks and curly dark feathers at the base of their tails that are sometimes referred to as drake feathers. Both drakes and hens have a purplish blue patch of feathers on their wings that is bordered in white that is called the speculum. This is distinctive enough to help in distinguishing the females specially from many similar ducks, though it is not always visible.

A pair of Mallards, with the speculum wing patch visible on the hen.

     Their scientific name is derived from the Latin "Anas" for "duck" while their specific name "platyrynchos" comes from the Greek words for "broad beak." This name was initially given to them by Linnaeus himself. They were once simply called "Wild Ducks" in England, while some still refer to the plain brownish hens as "Susies." The word "Mallard" comes to us from Old French for "wild drake." 

A pair of Mallards tipping up to feed. Note the curly drake feathers on the male to the right.

     Mallard are our largest dabbling, or puddle, ducks. This means that they normally feed at the surface, tipping bottoms-up to reach food below. They rarely dive under water, except maybe to escape a predator or if wounded. Dabblers can also spring directly into the air when taking off. Most diving ducks to the contrary need to patter or run along the surface before attaining flight. Here is a short video showing how dabbling ducks typically feed:


     Mallards consume mostly plant material. Most of the year, up to 90% of their diet consists of aquatic plants, their seeds, tubers, and grains. I've seen large flocks descend onto corn stubble and soy fields on numerous occasions. But I've also seen them furiously feeding on water fleas and fingernail clams in small vernal pools. They are not too picky, and during certain times, 70% or more of their diet switches to animal matter. This is particularly true of hens prior to nesting when they need all the protein and calcium they can find. I've even seen them hunting wood frogs at these pools and swallowing them whole. Ducklings in particular feed heavily on insects and small invertebrates while growing, before switching to their mostly vegetarian diet.
     Hens always seem to be in short supply. Males display and attempt to pair up with them throughout the winter and into early spring. Mallard drakes are very aggressive in their pursuit of mates, particularly late in the spring season. Any single hen, one abandoned by her mate after starting to lay eggs, or one not defended well by her mate can be pursued, often by a group of males who will gang up on her. This is exasperated in overcrowded situations. Sometimes the drakes injure and on rare occasions even drown hens in their ardor. 
     This aggressive urge for mallard drakes to mate is not limited to just Mallards. Hybrids are not uncommon, and sometimes these result from forced copulation with other duck species. There are even stories of domestic mallards with out enough females attempting to mate with chickens and even drowning them. Mallards are not that picky therefore about mates and several hybrid duck species are sometimes seen. These include Mallards crossing with Pintails, Gadwalls (what Audubon called a Brewer's Duck), Widgeon (both American and Eurasian), Shovelers, Green-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Eurasian Teal, and domestic ducks.

A hybrid Mallard mix, likely with a domestic duck.

     With some duck species that are rare or have isolated populations, there is some concern that Mallards may swamp out the less populated species, perhaps even leading to their extinction. This is suspected to be the case in such species as hybrid American Black Ducks, Mottled Ducks, Mexican Ducks, and Hawaiian Mottled Ducks. In some parts of the world, Mallards are considered invasive, threatening to out-breed local species. This is the case with Africa's Yellow-billed and Meller's Ducks, Pacific Black Ducks, and Asian Spot-billed Ducks.

A Mallard-American Black Duck hybrid.

     Mallards, perhaps helped due to their escape and release from captivity, are the most adaptable of ducks and have moved into habitats that once were the niche for other duck species. They have benefited in many ways from people and are much less picky about nesting locations or proximity with people than other ducks. It is illegal in some areas to release or even keep Mallards. Feral ducks or those fed by people may not migrate, and if they mate, may pass that trait on as well. They have the most extensive breeding range of any North American duck and will nest the first year after being born. Mallards have been expanding their breeding range since the early 1900's, and some suspect at the expense of other duck types. 

A Mallard drake among three Mallard hens: one pure bred, one mixed with Black Duck, and one with domestic duck.

     Once a Mallard hen has mated, she chooses a site, usually near water, but up to a mile away, in which to nest. Sometimes they pick very unsuitable sites and you hear about people rescuing ducklings from roofs, garages, and helping them cross busy streets. Hens may even dump their eggs into other ducks' nests (not always Mallards) and have eggs dumped into theirs. Males, as in all our dabbling ducks, do not help raise the young but instead often form small bachelor flocks during the warmer month. 

A Mallard hen leads her brood. One of the ducklings looks to be of mixed heritage.

     If the nesting situation ends up working out, then each hen lays about an egg a day in her ground nest until she reaches her compliment of 8-12 eggs. These can make up more than half her weight, so this is taxing on the mother. She will often sit tight concealing her nest until almost stepped on. This has led to some farmers using "flushing bars" ahead of their mowers and tractors to spook the hens before its too late. Many hens are also caught by predators such as foxes and coyotes while sitting tight. Skunks, raccoons, possums, and many others prey on their eggs as well. 
     If lucky, she incubates her greenish-white eggs for about 28 days before they all hatch. Within hours she leads her precocial ducklings to water. Sixty or so days later they are fledged. If successful, hens often return to nest near where they nested the previous year. 
     Mallards are very vocal and gregarious ducks. The hen in particular quacks quite loudly and often. Drakes do so much less and have a quieter and raspier quack. Mallards are the most hunted of all ducks, responding well to calls, decoys, and considered decent table fare. Their numbers fluctuate yearly, but are considered stable. Duck population and nesting surveys are often based heavily on Mallard numbers before setting hunting seasons and limits. Indeed, they are the most numerous and widespread of North America's ducks. 
     Mallards may be common, but they are so because they are so adaptable. They will overwinter as far North as the food supply and open water allows. In fact, like some other waterfowl, they will sometimes paddle around in small flocks to keep an opening for them to use in the ice. Here is a short video showing one working its way through the ice:


     So Mallards are abundant and adaptable survivors. If nothing gets them, they have been known to live as long as 26 years and 4 months (as we have learned from recovered banded waterfowl). They are quite beautiful ducks that have gotten accustomed to and even benefited from humans, much as we have also benefited from these ducks the world over. 


Thursday, January 7, 2016

American Black Duck

A pair of American Black Ducks

     The American Black Duck (Anas rubripes) is not a very showy bird and is not common in our area. It is very similar to the common Mallard both in behavior and voice. These large ducks (23" and about 3 lbs on average) look like dark Mallard hens in appearance. They are drab and dark, with slightly lighter colored heads and eye stripes. Black Ducks have a violet-blue patch on their wing (called the "speculum") that is bordered in black, though this is not always visible. Mallard hens are lighter overall in appearance and the speculum is bordered in white when visible. 

An American Black Duck on the left with its violet speculum next to two Mallards with white-bordered speculums.

     Their scientific name Anas is Latin for "duck" while the specific name rubripes is Latin for "red-leg." After the first year, they do indeed have reddish legs, leading to one of their common names: "Redlegs." They are also sometimes referred to as "Black Mallards" and/or "Blackies." Males (drakes) have unmarked yellow bills while hens have dull olive beaks. Otherwise the sexes look very similar. Black Ducks are light colored under their wings, contrasting heavily against their darker bodies. This makes for a good field mark when these fast flying birds are in flight. 

As this Black duck opens its wings, you can see the violet speculum and the white flash under its wings. 

     Black Ducks are mostly Northern birds. They prefer to nest in Canada and wooded areas well North of us. They get rarer as you go West and do not migrate very far South. They will use both fresh and brackish wetlands in the warmer months, but tend to winter in brackish estuaries and bays, mostly along the Atlantic Coast. Blackies winter farther North than most other dabbling ducks, very reluctant to go South even as the water freezes over. Though very strong fliers, they do not stray very far South or West, but have been known to (rarely) reach Great Britain.
     Black Ducks are dabbling, or puddle ducks. They feed by dabbling along the surface and tipping up to reach food below the water. They rarely dive, though they are capable of doing so to escape danger or if wounded. Like all dabblers, Black Ducks can spring straight into the air, 8-10' when taking off, not needing to patter or run along the surface like most diving ducks need to do before flying. 
     Black Ducks pair up during the winter. They hang out in small flocks or pairs and favor coastal waters. While over 85% of their diet is vegetable matter in spring and summer, they consume much more animal matter in the fall and winter. Black ducks consume three times as much animal food as Mallards during winter. This is likely due to it being easier to find crustaceans and mollusks in the coastal waters they overwinter in. 
     Back on their Northern nesting grounds, Black Ducks prefer isolated, wooded, dark locations. They usually nest on the ground and near water. Hens, who raise their young on their own like almost all dabbling ducks, will often nest within yards of the previous year's nest. They lay from 6-12 buff colored eggs that hatch approximately 27 days after being laid. 
     Almost all the eggs hatch within hours of each other. The hen then usually waits until dark to lead her precocial ducklings to the water. They fledge in about 60 days and will breed the very next year.
     Black Ducks are among the most wary of dabbling ducks. Due to their strong flight, elusive nature, and reputation as good table fare, they were at one time a favorite of duck hunters. They are difficult to decoy and have keen eye sight. Since the early 1980's however, very strict harvest limits have been placed on them. 
     Black Ducks numbers have been declining steadily since the 1950's and these rules were put in place to help stabilize their numbers. The population now is believed to be half of what historical numbers originally were. Much research is being done as to why, despite conservation efforts, their numbers continue to decline, sponsored particularly by hunting organizations such as Duck Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl.
     The main theories as to why their numbers have dropped have to do with habitat loss and encroachment by Mallards. Black Ducks are believed to prefer darker and more isolated wooded wetlands. They are less tolerant of intrusion and wary of people. Their darker plumage provides good camouflage in these conditions. But these more isolated and wooded wetlands are of course now much rarer. So is the open coastal waters they prefer to winter over in.
     With the decline in wooded wetlands and because Mallards are much less picky about their habitat, the range of Mallards has crossed over more now so that it overlaps that of Black Ducks much more than it did in the past. So now Mallards compete with them for both food and nesting areas.
     Mallards also readily mate and hybridize with Black Ducks. Some research suggests that 4% of matings now are with Mallards rather than other Black Ducks. Further more, some recent research also suggests that many of these hybridizations result from forced copulation of Black Duck hens by male Mallards. Mallard drakes are aggressive in pursuit of hens, often ganging up on hens and sometimes even drowning them in their urge to mate. Hybrids of Mallards with many other species such as Black Ducks, Pintails, Gadwalls, Widegon, Shovelers, Teal, and Mottled Ducks are common. So it may be that Mallard matings with Black Ducks are swamping-out the less common Black Duck, helping to breed them out of existence, along with competition for resources. 

A Mallard-Black Duck hybrid below a normal Mallard hen for comparison. There was a hybrid Mallard-Domestic white duck hybrid in the same small flock.

     So although Black Duck numbers are not in any threatened status, it is something that conservationists are worried about and researching. If all goes well, Black Ducks have been known to reach the record age of 26 years and 5 months. For short video of them, check out the following:


     American Black Ducks may not be common or even that handsome, but these are interesting ducks in their own right. Let's hope that conservation efforts halt their decline and allow their numbers to once again recover. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

American Holly

American Holly with berries 

     American Holly (Ilex opaca) is what most people envision when they think of a holly. Despite there being several deciduous hollies, this evergreen tree is what typifies the holly to most people. This is specially true during the holidays, as this evergreen, along with its evergreen relatives from the Old World, were often a large part of the holiday festivities. Indeed another common name for this tree is "Christmas Holly." Each individual leaf may last 3 years before dropping off and getting replaced on a living tree, and the leaves cling on long after a branch is cut, making this plant ideal for decorations.
     This small tree (to 50' or so) was heavily collected as part of holiday decorations. Being slow growing, this led to great shortages and threatened its existence until protections were enacted to preserve them. The dense crown of evergreen, spiky leaves and pyramidal growth made this a holiday favorite. Though not as shiny as its European cousin ("opaca" in its scientific name means "not shiny"), it was a staple of many households. It, along with its relatives, remains a favorite of landscaping, with 1000 types of Ilex in cultivation. We have 13 native holly species in the East and American Holly is the state tree of Delaware.
     This tradition of using the evergreen hollies dates back well before Christmas and Christian tradition. The Romans for example used hollies as part of their Saturnalia or winter solstice celebrations. It was then adopted by Christians and others as a symbolic gesture of green life in midwinter. It was traditionally considered bad luck to bring hollies indoors before Christmas or to leave them up after Epiphany or Three Kings Day (January 6th).
     There are problems with being an evergreen tree in winter however. Not only must you produce anti-freezing agents in your leaves, but the leaves need a waxy covering to keep from losing water too quickly. Available water is hard to find in winter and the plant can ill-afford to lose any through its leaves. But these green leaves are tempting to herbivores as well, and so the spines on the leaves. As if that wasn't enough, snow and ice can be heavy and break limbs. The leaves thus point downwards to shed snow and are very flexible to withstand what they cannot shed. All good adaptations for an evergreen tree.

Downward pointing leaves help American Holly shed heavy snow.

     If considering hollies for the garden, it is good to keep in mind that most of these trees are dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are formed on separate trees. If you plant a male tree, you will never get berries (drupes botanically). If you plant a female and there are no male trees nearby, you also will not get fruit.
     The colorful berries on American Holly are not edible to people, but at least 49 bird species have been documented eating them. They are however not usually the first choice or preferred food. It may be because they have a low fat content and so are not as nutritious, but I think they simply are not tasty to most birds. That is one reason they hang on the trees for so long (and add holiday color). After being conditioned by the cold, and when there are few remaining food sources, is when they are finally eaten by birds. Having said that, they can be real life savers, with flocks often descending on them in late February and March in many cases and completely stripping the trees bare. Occasionally a mockingbird will guard its tree from all other bird intruders through the winter. Though it is sometimes considered a "starvation food" by some, it is an important food source. Check out this short video showing American Robins feeding on American Holly:

     Each berry (technically a drupe) contains 4 brown nutlets that are dispersed mostly by birds. It may take 10 years for a tree to mature enough to produce fruits. Each individual tree can live to 150 years or so if lucky. The smooth, thin bark however makes it susceptible to fire damage. It also is a favorite target for sapsuckers to drill into, leaving long rows of holes. These then are often the target of hornets who strip off pieces where its been damaged to use in constructing their own paper nests. All this damage may result in girdling the tree to death.

The smooth grey bark of this American Holly has been marred by numerous sapsucker drills.

     Some other animals also make use of holly. Thirty-nine caterpillar species (5 of which are not native) have been noted as using the tree as a food source. This includes the Henry's Elfin butterfly and the Holly Azure butterfly, who's caterpillars feeds on its flowers. A couple of leaf miner flies also feed within the leaves, leaving distinctive trails where they've fed.

A Holly Leaf Miner Fly has left its feeding trails within the leaf itself.

     Several species of pollinators visit the flowers to feed, though ants in particular are attracted to them. They do not act as pollinators however, rather they just steal the nectar for themselves.

Ants robbing American Holly flowers of their nectar.

     People have been using hollies for more than just decoration and holiday cheer however for a long time. American Holly use was documented by the great ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman by several Native American Indian tribes for example. The Alabama used the bark for an eye wash, as did the Choctaw. The Catawba used an infusion from the leaves for sores and for sore muscles. The Koasati made an infusion from the bark that could be rubbed into the skin for itching. It was the Cherokee that had the most uses for American Holly however. They chewed the berries (which can be toxic) for colic, to treat acid reflux and other gastrointestinal issues, and for hernias. They made a dye from the fruit and used the white wood (the tree is still sometimes referred to as White Holly) in carving spoons. When all else failed, they used the spiky leaves to scratch cramped muscles.
     During the Civil War, Confederate doctor Francis Porcher was ordered to find alternatives for goods no longer available due to Northern blockades. He noted that American Holly bark could be used for colds, coughs, and tuberculosis. The berries he said could be used as an emetic to induce vomiting. An infusion of the leaves could be used as a diaphoretic, to induce sweating that would treat small pox, lung issues, and conditions of the throat. He suggested that the inner bark could be a substitute for quinine and be used to treat fevers. A tea made from the roots could also treat colds, coughs, and stimulate appetite. Consuming the berries could be used to expel intestinal worms. The inner bark he reported could be used to create "bird lime" sticky enough to capture birds. Porcher also mentioned that the light colored wood could take dyes easily and be used for carpentry.
     The wood is sometimes still dyed and used as a substitute for ebony in making black piano keys. Folk healers sometimes still brew tea from the leaves that is said to induce sweating and alleviate fevers. This tea reportedly has caffeine. In the language of flowers (sometimes called floriography) holly is supposed to signify foresight. In ancient times, holly was said to contain magical powers. The flowers could turn water to ice it was said, while planting the tree by a building would lend protection from lightning and witch craft.
     I like to pick a leaf off the ground and hold it on opposite sides by the spines. I then blow on it, making it twirl between my fingers in a helicopter fashion. This small trick is a favorite of young kids when I wrap up a nature walk. American Holly has such a rich heritage of uses and folklore. It is nice to celebrate this native tree any time of year, making any of them Holly-days.

Holding a holly leaf between your fingers and blowing on the underside of the leaf produces a whirlybird.