Diggin' In: In winter, a pretty holly and it butterfly pal

January 12, 2015

Meet the nice native yaupon holly and the Henry’s Elfin butterfly that frequents it.

Information on these species is courtesy Helen Hamilton, author of "Wildflowers and Grasses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain."

Happy-looking holly

With soft leaves and bright-red fruits in early January, yaupon holly is a much-loved landscape plant. It can be used several ways — lower branches removed to create a small, stand-out tree or pruned to form an attractive privacy hedge. It’s a durable, fast-growing plant that can be planted along streets, parking lots and sidewalk cutouts.

The straight species, native holly is known as Ilex vomitoria and grows 15 to 25 feet tall with a natural vase shape, according to Hamilton. It tolerates most growing conditions — full sun to shade, swamps, sand or clay, and tolerates drought and salt spray. Found on coastal dunes, stream banks, shrub thickets and woodlands, it grows best with mild winters and hot, humid summers — from Virginia to Florida and west to Texas and Arkansas, typically cold hardy zones 7-10.

Yaupon fruits are small but beautiful in a translucent red color. Arranged in dense clusters throughout the plant, the berries form in October through November and persist through winter as a vital food source for many birds, which distribute the seeds. Small mammals eat the fruits, but deer tend to avoid the entire plant, Hamilton notes.

This plant produces inconspicuous white flower March through May on male and female trees.

"Male flowers have large yellow anthers, but only female flowers produce small red fruits, technically a drupe, which is a fleshy fruit with a hard stone like peaches and plums," says Hamilton.

Unlike most prickly hollies, yaupon’s gray-green leaves are smooth with scalloped edges.

In spring, yaupon’s flowers are pollinated by bees. Most important, yaupon holly is a host plant for Henry’s Elfin butterfly, meaning female butterflies deposit eggs on the leaves which are eaten by the caterpillars, according to Hamilton.

Many yaupon cultivars are available in local nurseries in dwarf, weeping and columnar forms. Some cultivated varieties bear yellow fruits, or the leaves are shiny or burgundy in the fall. Other cultivars are male only, without fruit; some are female with very showy persistent fruits.

Historically, the species name — "vomitoria" — is not readily understandable, she adds. It refers to the ritual use by Native Americans, who brewed the leaves and twigs for a tea, which they drank in large quantities. As part of a purification ceremony, they vomited back the drink, self-induced or with the addition of other ingredients.

Henry’s Elfin Butterfly

When the flowers of holly trees and redbuds open early spring, pollinators like Henry’s Elfin butterfly, or Callophrys henrici, also awake from their winter nap, says Hamilton.

Butterflies can overwinter as eggs, caterpillars, or as pupa, often encased inside a hardened covering called a chrysalis. Many butterflies respond to cold temperatures by entering diapause, a period of suspended development when metabolism is lowered, she adds.

"Henry’s Elfin emerges in early March, and within a few weeks the females will choose the leaves of hollies and redbuds to deposit eggs," she says.

Henry’s Elfin caterpillars recognize and feed on these familiar host plants; by the end of April the life cycle of the adult butterfly ends. Not much is known about the dormancy of Henry’s Elfin, but possibly the caterpillars metamorphose into pupa and enter diapause until the following spring, according to Dr. Norman Fashing, an entomologist at the College of William and Mary.

This butterfly is delicately marked on the wings with brown and violet and unlike most hairstreaks, their hindwing tails are reduced and stubby, says Hamilton.

If you want to help butterflies in your yard, remember that leaf litter, shrubs and standing vegetation are all homes for overwintering butterflies, according to Brian Taber of the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory — .

Instead of cleaning up perennial beds in late winter, allow the stems of goldenrods, joe-pye weeds and sunflowers to stay there, acting as homes for many beneficial insects. Old vegetation should remain in the garden until early spring, and then be cut into segments to remain on the ground where soil insects convert stems and leaves to mulch, says Taber.



Associated Press