We all look forward to the arrival of spring and the explosion of color in the landscape, but most of us don’t expect the approaching winter season to provide much color. In fact, it’s a time for dormancy and, therefore, a period of drab surroundings. Or is it?

Choices for the landscape include shrubs and trees which produce fruit or berries that provide striking color during the winter months. Two small trees which offer bright red winter berries are the Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) and Possumhaw holly (I. decidua). During the summertime, these trees look very much alike; but they look very different in the winter. The dark green leaves of the evergreen yaupon provide a wonderful backdrop for the red berries, while the bare branches of the deciduous possumhaw offer an equally stunning display of fruit.

Remember, in both cases, only female plants have berries. Most nursery stock is marked; or, if you visit the nursery in this season, the berries will be present on the plants. Be aware that dwarf yaupon holly will not have berries, since dwarf bushes are always male.

For maximum berries, plant the trees in full sun, and prune very lightly. Both hollies are well adapted to east Texas (and most of the south) and can be expected to grow and prosper with little or no attention. The reward is the winter color and the feast which the berries provide for the birds.

Martin Davis, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service


The possumhaw (Ilex decidua) is a deciduous holly which drops its leaves in the fall to reveal
clusters of yellow to orange to red berries, which last all winter. It tolerates sun or shade, though in full sunlight growth is more dense and fruiting is heavier. It has few enemies and grows in almost any kind of soil–acid or alkaline, dry or marginally damp. It reaches a height of 15 to 25 feet high and 10 to 15 feet wide. It can be pruned at anytime, which is a plus as you can expect many requests for branches of berries. The berries are a favorite of many species of birds.

Varieties to consider include Warren’s Red, Council Fire and Byer’s Golden. To ensure berries, plant one male possumhaw or male American holly for every six female trees.

Geneva Thomas, former Smith County Master Gardener
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service


During any season, holly trees add beauty to the East Texas landscape. But while there are many well-known and loved varieties of holly, not all of them can tolerate our hot, humid summers.

The Nellie R. Stevens (Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’) offers heat tolerance along with traditional holly beauty. It has the excellent vigor of most hybrids and also grows more rapidly than some other types.

Nellie R. Stevens is a broadly pyramidal tree that can reach 30 to 40 feet tall, though more commonly grows to the 15 to 25 foot range. It is tolerant of our area’s heavy soils and can also withstand drought. It performs best in full sun but can tolerate partial shade. Give it a location with the best drainage available as consistently wet sites can damage its roots.

Nellie R. Stevens has typical holly foliage that is glossy, deep green and remains densely beautiful year-round. It also is a prolific producer of bright red berries and has the advantage – unlike many other holly varieties – of not requiring a male tree nearby to produce fruit. The red clusters will be beautiful in winter until late February or early March, when a flock of cedar waxwings may swoop in and eat all the berries. A new crop will then appear in spring.

Nellie R. Stevens can be used singly or in mass plantings. A row placed five feet apart and left unpruned will quickly grow to make a perfect hedge.

Suzanne Gates, former Smith County Master Gardener
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service

Posted in Shrubs