Deck the halls with dahoon holly … Fa la la la la, la la la la?
If you were to guess how many species of holly are native to South Florida, how many would you think? One? two? The correct answer is six, including American holly, the “classic” holly used to deck the halls and make Christmas wreaths. However, it’s restricted pretty much to Collier and Lee counties, and it’s so rare regionally that it’s considered “critically imperiled" by local experts.
There’s sand holly, but it too is limited geographically and is considered critically endangered, and Krug’s holly, also imperiled. Not a good idea to deck the halls with endangered plants.
There is yaupon holly, which is native to Florida, but not this part of Florida, though still found here.
The perfect choice for our celebration is the sixth and final species, dahoon holly, pictured above. It's similar in looks to yaupon, but also native and plentiful. The thing about dahoon compared with American holly, though, is the leaves. Dahoon lacks the dramatically sharply pointed lobes that make holly symbolically important to the holidays. The points are there, for the most part, but they're small, less dramatic, seemingly vestigial.
The sharp lobes of American (and European) holly represent the crown of thorns Christ wore when crucified; the deep red berries, drops of blood. The overall shape of the leaves resembles a flame, symbolizing God’s burning love.
South Florida’s sixth native holly? Gallberry, also called inkberry. The leaves are similar enough to dahoon to identify it as part of the holly family, but its berries are black rather than red and its a shrub rather than a tree.
Both dahoon holly and gallberry are important in the natural scheme of things as sources of food and shelter for birds and other animals. Both dahoon and gallberry can be used to make a cup of tea for Christmas or any other cold winter's night, though gallberry is by far the better choice. Yaupon also makes a good tea, but it can be extremely strong. It has the highest caffeine content of any North American plant. Its scientific name: Ilex vomitoria, which tells you what happens if you overdo it with your brew.
So yes, deck the halls with dahoon holly, fa la la la la, la la la la ...