1206 Ilex deciduaCommon Names: possumhaw, possum haw Family: Aquifoliaceae (holly Family)
Possumhaw is a holly with deciduous leaves. This is an upright shrub (or small tree) that gets 6-20 ft (2-6 m) tall with an open, spreading crown almost as wide. It may or may not send up suckers from the base. The leaves are oval, around 1-3 in (3-8 cm) long, and have scalloped (shallow rounded teeth) margins. With magnification, each of the rounded marginal teeth can be seen to be tipped with a tiny reddish gland. The leaves tend to be crowded on short spurs that come off the branches laterally, and may appear to be opposite each other but are, in fact, alternately arranged. Possumhaw is often one of the last shrubs to leaf out in spring. The flowers have four dull white petals and are about a quarter inch (6 mm) across. They are borne singly or in clusters of 2-3 in the leaf axils, and are not particularly showy. Male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. The berries (technically drupes) are usually bright red but occasionally orange or yellow, and are about a quarter inch (6 mm) in diameter. They dangle from stalks almost an inch (2.5 cm) long, and persist for a long time after the leaves have dropped.
Possumhaw is similar to yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) but that shrub has evergreen leaves that are smaller and stiffer. Two other deciduous hollies of eastern North America are sand holly (I. ambigua) and winterberry (I. verticillata), both of which can be distinguished from possumhaw by their leaves, which have pointed teeth on their margins. Sarvis holly (I. amelanchier) is also similar but its leaves have undersides that are woolly pubescent. None of the other hollies has flower and fruit stalks even half as long as those of possumhaw. Walter viburnum (Viburnum obovata) is also superficially similar, but viburnum flowers have five petals and their leaves are opposite one another.
The cultivar, 'Warren Red' was selected for its abundant and long lasting bright red berries, taller stance and particularly shiny foliage. 'Byer's Golden' has yellow berries. 'Council Fire' has smaller leaves and darker, blood-red berries. 'Red Escort' is a male cultivar often offered as a pollinator for the fruiting clones.
Possumhaw (Ilex decidua) is typically a lowland shrub that usually grows in the understory in floodplains, along creeks, swamps margins and low lying forests. It sometimes grows in upland sites along fence rows, road shoulders and open woods. Its occurrence is restricted to elevations below 1000 ft (300 m) above sea level. Possumhaw is distributed in SE North America from MD south to FL and west to eastern KS and eastern TX. It does not occur in the Appalachians or in South Florida.
Light: Grow possumhaw in partial shade to full sun. Moisture: Possumhaw does well in moist soils, and even can tolerate flooding for a few weeks at a time. Once established, possumhaw will thrive in normal, well drained soils. Hardiness: USDA Zones 5 - 10. Some cultivars may be hardy to zone 4. Propagation: Young, fast growing stem tips may be started in spring or summer and are easy to root. Ilex seeds are difficult to germinate (unless you happen to be Mother Nature), and possumhaw seeds may take 18 months or more before sprouting.
Possumhaw is a good choice for the naturalistic woodland garden, especially if near water. It tolerates clayey and alkaline soils and wet conditions, and is recommended for pond margins and rain gardens. This deciduous shrub usually has a short trunk and starts branching close to the ground, making it a nice looking specimen in the landscape. Possumhaw also makes a good addition to a mixed hedge or border. Possumhaw flowers are insignificant in the landscape, but the leaves are a fine glossy dark green and usually reward with a dull yellow before dropping. But possumhaw is most attractive in winter, after the leaves have fallen and the persistent bright red berries are so noticeable. In fact, the showy berries will last all winter until the following spring (or until the cedar waxwings get them). The berry-laden branches are often used as Christmas decorations.
Possumhaw is dioecious, so you want to plant mostly female plants, but have at least one male for pollination. Possumhaw is maintenance-free and very easy to grow and has been reported to tolerate urban air pollution, so would be good choice for city parks.
Possumhaw fruits are eaten by many kinds of birds and small mammals and nearly all female plants bear fruit abundantly and consistently from year to year.
Possumhaw is considered a Threatened Species in Florida where it occurs sporadically and is nowhere common.
Steve Christman 12/15/13