Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria)

Yaupon, Yaupon Holly

The yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is a broadleaf evergreen shrub or small tree that grows 10 to 30 feet tall with green leaves and red berries. It adds vibrance to your garden throughout the year but is considered a holiday plant for its green and red color combination.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Ilex vomitoria, commonly known as yaupon or yaupon holly, is a species of holly that is native to southeastern North America. The word yaupon was derived from the Catawban yą́pą, from yą- tree + pą leaf. Another common name, cassina, was borrowed from Timucua (despite this, it usually refers to Ilex cassine). The Latin name comes from an observation by early Europeans that the ingestion of the plant was followed by vomiting in certain ceremonies.

The plant was traditionally used by Native Americans to make an infusion containing caffeine. It is only one of two known plants endemic to North America that produce caffeine. The other (containing 80% less) is Ilex cassine, commonly known as dahoon holly. Yaupon is also widely used for landscaping in its native range.

Yaupon holly is an evergreen shrub or small tree reaching 5–9 m tall, with smooth, light gray bark and slender, hairy shoots. The leaf arrangement is alternate, with leaves ovate to elliptical and a rounded apex with crenate or coarsely serrated margin, 1 – 4.5 cm long and 1–2 cm broad, glossy dark green above, slightly paler below. The flowers are 5–5.5 mm diameter, with a white four-lobed corolla. The fruit is a small round, shiny, and red (occasionally yellow) drupe 4–6 mm diameter containing four pits, which are dispersed by birds eating the fruit. The species may be distinguished from the similar Ilex cassine by its smaller leaves with a rounded, not acute apex.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

Yaupon holly tolerates full and partial sun. However, growth in full sun will yield more berries.

Temperature and Humidity

Yaupon holly’s USDA zones are 7 through 9, which means it is hardy in temperatures that dip as low as 0 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. It can adapt to various climates but prefers slightly cooler and humid weather. It may struggle to survive winters at the higher end of its hardiness range. Yaupon hollies are generally cold-resistant.

Watering

Yaupon hollies are somewhat drought resistant but should be watered regularly. Water the root ball twice or three times a week during the plant’s first year and then weekly. Use rainwater and distilled water rather than tap water and water during the morning or evening.

Soil

The yaupon holly prefers sandy soil but grows well in diverse soil compositions. It has a high tolerance for salty soil, making it a good choice for planting near the ocean.

Fertilizing

You can fertilize your yaupon holly lightly once in the spring and fall, and be sure not to fertilize during planting. For the amount to use, follow product label instructions. You may apply a thin layer of mulch to the ground but avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers.

Pruning

While typically unnecessary, you can lightly prune a yaupon holly to maintain your desired shape or limit disease spread. If the tree is small, prune the lower side branches.

You can rejuvenate badly overgrown shrubs by cutting away up to one-third of the branches. Cut selected stems down the base of the plant. When shaping as a hedge, cut the ends of branches back to 1/4 inch above a node facing the direction you want the branch to grow. Cut away suckers from the base of the plant as they appear unless your goal is to encourage the shrub to grow into a thicket.

Propagation

Cuttings

Yaupon holly is best propagated from small, semi-hardwood cuttings taken in the fall. Here’s how to propagate a yaupon holly:

  • Select small branches and sever the cutting below a set of leaves.
  • Remove the lower leaves, then coat the cut end with a rooting hormone.
  • Place the cutting in a mixture of perlite and coarse sand, and keep the cutting moist and warm until roots develop.
  • After 8 to 10 weeks, you can transplant the cutting into a large pot filled with a loam and sand mix.
  • Transplant to a permanent location.

Seed

If you are willing to handle the berries, it is also possible to harvest them and extract their seeds to grow even more yaupon holly. Here’s how.

  • Select berries and remove their outer flesh.
  • Place a soil mixture of half loam and half perlite into a 4-inch pot, leaving some room at the top.
  • Cover the seeds with loam and a thin layer of sand.
  • Cover them with plastic and place them on a 70-degree Fahrenheit heating mat for a month or two.
  • Move the pots into a refrigerator and store them there for two to three months.
  • Move the pots to a partially shaded area and remove the plastic.
  • Grow in partial shade for the first summer and winter.
  • Transplant the plants in the spring

Potting and Repotting 

You can pot a yaupon holly in any pot with adequate drainage, but heavier pots made of wood and terracotta are ideal. Fill your container with potting soil, loosen the plant’s roots with your fingers, and insert the shrub. Keep the soil moist and fertilize every one to two weeks.

Overwintering

The yaupon holly does well during winter and can survive in low temperatures. You may prune the shrub lightly or bundle its branches with ropes to prevent damage from heavy snowfall.

Pests and Diseases

Common pests 

If you’ve had it with aphids, fill your yard with yaupon hollies. They’re one of the few plants that I know of that just aren’t troubled by them.

Here are the few pests you do need to watch for:

Nematodes

There are multiple types of nematodes that can wreak havoc on Ilex species, including root-knot (Meliodogyne spp.), ring (Mesocriconema and Criconemoides spp.), stunt (Tylenchorhynchus spp.), sting (Belonolaimus spp.) and spiral nematodes (Helicotylenchus spp.).

Don’t bother looking for these pests – they’re microscopic and live in the soil where they feed on the roots of many different species, using their sucking mouthparts.

Not only does this cause chlorosis, stunting, and leaf drop, but they also leave infested plants open to disease.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to eliminate them from the soil, though solarization and leaving soil fallow for years can help.

Just do your best to provide your plants with support and they might be able to live with an infestation for years to come. ‘Nana’ is resistant to all types of nematodes.

Scale

Indian wax scale (Ceroplases ceriferus) and holly pit scale (Asterolecanium puteanum) are common on yaupons, but they’re only a major problem in large numbers.

Hollies might wilt, the leaves might turn yellow, and they might drop. Heavily infested plants might have branches die or the entire plant might fail.

Look for white waxy lumps or flat brown circles on the branches and twigs. Use a butter knife and try scraping them away. You can also prune off heavily infested branches. That should be enough to keep them under control.

If an infestation persists, spray with horticultural oil when temperatures are between 45 and 90°F. Repeat every 10 days as long as the insects are present.

Common disease

There’s really only one disease that can be a common problem for these plants and it’s easily avoided if you provide the right conditions. Let’s talk about root rot.

Phytophthora Root Rot

Caused by the oomycete (aka water mold) Phytophthora cinnamomi, this disease can be hard to identify because all the damage is happening underground.

The roots will start turning brown or black at the tips. As the disease progresses, the black or brown rot extends throughout the entire root structure.

Meanwhile, above ground, the tree will look wilted and stunted and you’ll see yellowing between the leaf veins. The leaves may also drop and twigs might die back.

This disease usually occurs in plants that are planted too deeply, that are over-mulched, or that are sitting in standing water due to overwatering or very poorly draining soil.

Planting in the right spot with adequate drainage and taking care not to overwater or using too much mulch is key for prevention. Once a plant is showing symptoms, you’ll probably need to pull it.

If it’s a plant you’re particularly fond of, you can treat the soil with a product that contains the beneficial microbe Streptomyces lydicus WYEC 108, like Actinovate SP.

The faster you apply a fungicide, the better your chance of getting rid of the disease. Soak the soil with the fungicide once every two weeks until the symptoms subside.

Common Problems 

The yaupon holly tends to be disease and pest-resistant, except for rare infestations and disease and the resulting damage. As with any tree, pay attention to its general health and the possible presence of insects and watch for these signs.

Yellowing Leaves

It’s normal for some leaves to turn yellow and drop from the yaupon holly in the spring and summer. An abundance of yellowing leaves could also mean the plant is stressed due to underwatering, overwatering, transplant shock, or another cultural problem.

Browning Leaves

This plant can tolerate drought well. But a severe lack of water can turn leaves brown. The leaves could be experiencing windburn, as well, which tends to brown foliage, especially in late winter and early spring.

III. Uses and Benefits 

Human consumption

Some Native American tribes brew the leaves and stems to create an herbal tea, commonly called black drink. Historically the ceremonial consumption often included vomiting, and Europeans deduced that yaupon caused it (hence the Latin name – Ilex vomitoria). The active ingredients, like those of the related yerba mate and guayusa plants, are caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline; the vomiting may have resulted from the great quantities in which they drank the beverage, coupled with fasting.

Native Americans may have also used the infusion as a laxative. Ilex vomitoria usage by colonists for tea making and for medicinal uses in the Carolinas is documented by the early 18th century. In the English-speaking colonies, it was known variously as cassina, yaupon tea, Indian tea, Carolina tea, and Appalachian tea. Recently, the process of drying the leaves for consumption has been adopted by modern Americans, and yaupon is now commercially available.

Ornamental

Ilex vomitoria is a common landscape plant in the Southeastern United States. The most common cultivars are slow-growing shrubs popular for their dense, evergreen foliage and their adaptability to pruning into hedges of various shapes.

Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria) Details

Common name Yaupon, Yaupon Holly
Botanical name Ilex vomitoria
Plant type Native Plant
Hardiness zone 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Growth rate Fast
Harvest time Winter
Height 10 ft. 0 in. - 20 ft. 6 in.
Width 10 ft. 0 in. - 20 ft. 6 in.
Sunlight Deep shade (Less than 2 hours to no direct sunlight)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Green
Leaf color Green