Small Native Evergreen Trees or Shrubs for Winter Interest
By Wendy Diaz, EMGV
There are three shrubs (or small trees) native to North Carolina which I think add great interest to a garden landscape because their attractive evergreen foliage and bright berries provide excellent color and texture to the dull winter landscape. They also provide year round privacy if planted as a hedge. An added bonus is that they supply food and shelter for birds such as Nuthatches, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Brown Thrashers, Cedar Waxwings and Woodpeckers in the lean winter months[i]. Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria), American Holly (Ilex opaca) and Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus Virginiana) provide all these attributes during the season when naked deciduous trees and the bare landscape expose us to our neighbors and there is less food for birds.
Photographs from left to right: Yaupon Holly ‘Pendula’, American Holly (female), Eastern Red Cedar (center of photo). (Image credit: Wendy Diaz December, 2022)
Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria)[ii]
The Yaupon Holly, also commonly known as Yaupon, is a broadleaf evergreen shrub or small tree with dense branches that can reach heights of 10 to 20 feet tall with an 8 to 12 feet spread. The holly-like evergreen foliage consists of small, leathery green, elliptical-shaped spineless leaves which are less than an inch long. Small white flowers (similar to other hollies) in spring develop into tiny red spherical berries or drupes (simple fruit with a single hard seed surrounded by flesh)[iii] of ¼ inch in diameter on the leaf axils in October and November and persist through the winter. Yaupon Holly prefers sun to part shade and is drought tolerant. The weeping branches of the cultivar ‘Pendula’ is an ideal specimen shrub for the garden.
Left to right: Small elliptical, glossy dark-green foliage (no spines) and berries of Yaupon Holly. Close up of spherical red berries of the Yaupon Holly. (Image credit: Wendy Diaz)
American Holly (Ilex opaca)[iv]
American Holly is also a broadleaf evergreen tree that often occupies the understory of the deciduous forest of southeastern United States. This species of holly is easy to identify with its spiny green leaves and bright red berries. Other common names for this small tree are Winterberry, Inkberry, English Holly, and Christmas Holly. It grows slowly to an upright conical or pyramidal form that reaches heights of 40 to 60 feet tall and a 10 to 20 feet spread. Branches grow at right angles to the trunk, and the smooth bark is light gray in color. Its thick, leathery, dark-green leaves of 1 to 3 inches in length have spiny marginal teeth with an apical spine (tip of leaf). Pollinated small flowers in late spring produce small red round ¼ inch in diameter drupes that mature in the fall on female trees and persist all winter long (if they are not eaten by wildlife). American Holly prefers acidic soils in full sun to part shade.
Left to right: Spiny, dark-green leathery leaves of American Holly. Closeup of bright round red berries on the American Holly. (Image credit: Wendy Diaz December 2022)
Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus Virginiana)[v]
Eastern Red Cedar is a small needled evergreen tree that is actually not a cedar but a juniper, a species of the large genus Juniperus. This conifer is very common in the Piedmont and owes its common misnomer to the early colonists on Roanoke Island in 1564[vi] who described it as “tallest and reddest cedars in the world.” Other common names are Aromatic Cedar (red heartwood used in cedar chests), Carolina Cedar, Red Cedar, and Pencil Cedar (used to make pencils before 1940s). It can grow 30 to 40 feet tall in a conical to columnar form with a 10 to 20 foot spread. The juvenile foliage is long and sharp-pointed (prickly), but as the tree matures dense foliage develops into small glandular scale-like leaves attached tightly to a twig. The dark green foliage turns bronze in cold weather. The soft shaggy-looking distinctive bark on mature trees is dark gray to light brown and exfoliates in long fibrous strips. Eastern Red Cedar berries are not red but blue and are not real berries but are non-woody cones or ‘coneberries.’ The pale blue fruit on the female plants is oval and about ¼ inch in diameter with a white dusty protective coating and appear in October to December. The round berry-like blue fruits do not look like cones but they consist of soft (fleshy) scales that have actually coalesced and protect hard seeds. These fruits provide excellent winter food for a variety of birds and especially Cedar Waxwings. The Eastern Red Cedar is the most drought resistant conifer in eastern United States.
Fine texture of green foliage on a mature Eastern Red Cedar. Closeups of white coating on blue ‘berries’ of the Eastern Red Cedar in October 2021. (Image credit: Wendy Diaz)
Things to Consider
Because these three plants are dioecious (the male and female flowers are on separate male and female plants) shrubs of both sexes need to be planted to get the berries that form on the female trees. These shrubs/small trees provide the best dense foliage for privacy screens in full sun. If you have apple trees it is not recommended to plant Eastern Red Cedar as it is the host for the cedar-apple rust fungus (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginiae). All three shrubs are deer resistant, hardy and easy to grow as long as they are in well-drained soil. They are ideal to fill in the mid-level vertical landscape and their boughs and berries also provide a readily available source of natural (plastic-free) holiday decorations.
Left to right: American Holly (male) with young Eastern Red Cedar in foreground and American Holly (female) located on either side of a driveway. (Image credit: Wendy Diaz, December 2022)
Above left: Eastern Red Cedar hedge with eastern exposure, and above right in same photo, thicker foliage of an Eastern Red Cedar with a western exposure. These provide some privacy along a property boundary even before deciduous trees leaf out in spring. Bottom left: Yaupon Holly stem with attractive red berries, dark-green glossy leaves and smooth grey bark provides a distraction from the view of the back of a neighbor’s house. Bottom right: Yaupon Holly stem with berries added to a natural holiday arrangement. (Image credit: Wendy Diaz)
Winter interest in the garden landscape that combines both visual beauty and the attraction of winged visitors is often a neglected consideration when planning garden landscapes for spring and summer enjoyment, however, if you want a Yard of Great Interest or YOGI[vii] yard, the Yaupon Holly, American Holly and Eastern Red Cedar are good candidates to add to your garden.
Photographs clockwise: Cedar Waxwings take a drink after eating Eastern Red Cedar berries; Snow covering Yaupon Holly; Eastern Red Cedar covered in snow; Brown Thrasher foraging beneath a mature Eastern Red Cedar, and Yaupon Holly berries in the snow. (Image credit: Wendy Diaz)
[vii] Crossroads of the Natural World, Exploring North Carolina with Tom Earnhardt, Tom Earnhardt, University of N.C. Press: Chapel Hill( 2013), 314 pages (Page 170)
Resources and Additional Information
For a list of other native trees and shrubs for your garden, Click to access NativePlantsWoody.pdf, (https://ncbg.unc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/963/2019/08/NativePlantsWoody.pdf)
For more information on how to identify native trees and shrubs, the following publication is an excellent guide:
Native Trees of the Southeast, An Identification Guide, L. Katherine Kirkman, Claud L. Brown and Donald J. Leopold, Timber Press (2007).
For a list of where to find native trees and shrubs, check out the New Hope Audubon Society site’s Using Plants for a Bird Friendly Habitat. https://www.newhopeaudubon.org/conservation/bird-friendly-certification/native-plants/
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