Midwinter brings strange longings to gardeners. We wish a majestic 40-foot-tall pine tree with a cape of snow stood outside our living room window. Or a sheaf of yellow-gold grasses. Anything that would bring depth or color to the flat landscape of gray and brown. The orange-red berries of possumhaw, a deciduous holly native to North America, would also work. This lowland shrub hangs onto its fruit throughout the winter months, all the way to March. Deer, birds, and other critters (including opposums) like to eat the berries as much as we like to look at them, so we might wind up with even more to observe in that winter garden.
Common name: Possumhaw
Botanical name: Ilex decidua
Plant type: Deciduous shrub
Zones: 5 to 9
Height: 6 to 20 feet
• Sun: Full sun to part shade
• Soil: Average
• Moisture: Medium to moist
• Mulch: Mulch to preserve moisture in the soil, but leave a few inches of space around the trunk.
• Pruning: Minimal pruning needed. Remove diseased, damaged, or crossing branches in spring, before new growth begins.
• Fertilizer: Not needed.
• By seed or cuttings
Pests and diseases
• Vulnerable to root rot, powdery mildew, and leaf spots.
• Aphids may attack young shoots.
• Most possumhaw trees are dioecious, meaning there are male trees and female trees. Plant female trees for the best displays of fruit, and plant a male for pollination.
• Possumhaw often sends up suckers. If you plant the shrub in the middle of your lawn, simply mow down the suckers when you mow the grass. If your shrub is in a foundation planting, a woodland setting, or a garden bed, keep cutting back the suckers if you don’t want a thicket.
• A thicket of possumhaws makes a beautiful hedge.
• Possumhaws tolerate wet conditions, so you can plant it along streams and near swamps.
• Ilex fruit is attractive to wildlife but it can be toxic to humans.
• The bright red berries of ‘Warren’s Red’ are very persistent. The cultivar is hardier and more upright than the species.
• ‘Red Escort’ is a male pollinator with glossy foliage; hardy to Zone 6.
• ‘Finch’s Golden’ (or ‘Finch’s Gold’) bears yellow fruit.
All in the family
• There are more than 400 species—trees, shrubs, and climbers—in the genus Ilex. Some hollies are deciduous; some are evergreen. They’re found from tropical to temperate regions, and they’re cultivated for their glossy foliage and bright berries.
Where to buy
• Forestfarm, Williams, OR, 541-846-7269, www.forestfarm.com. Has cultivar ‘Finch’s Gold’.
• Oikos Tree Crops, Kalamazoo, MI, 269-624-6233, www.oikostreecrops.com
• Shooting Star Nursery, Georgetown, KY, 866-405-7979, www.shootingstarnursery.com
• Sooner Plant Farm, Park Hill, OK, 918-453-0771, www.soonerplantfarm.com. Has cultivar ‘Red Escort’.
• Sunlight Gardens, Andersonville, TN, 800-272-7396, www.sunlightgardens.com. Has cultivar ‘Warren’s Red’.
(Photo of Ilex decidua courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening)