Choose pretty, hardy yaupon hollies for privacy hedge

October 25, 2009 

We have a privacy hedge behind our garage that is planted with variegated privet. The leaves are covered with a black substance, constantly falling off, and privacy is nonexistent. My neighbors suggested crape myrtles, but quite honestly I'm tired of them and they are leafless half the year. Any ideas?

Yes, I was walking in Swan Lake Iris Gardens today and in the Braille Garden, admired a stand of yaupon hollies, Ilex vomitoria. This native evergreen has small, disease-free leaves, and the females have the added beauty of translucent red berries that resemble spun glass.

Whereas variegated privet is the incubation food for hundreds of thousands of white flies (the cause of those foliage problems), and classified as an exotic invasive plant, the native yaupon holly is practically pest free.

When it flowers, with tiny inconspicuous blossoms separated by sex on different plants, because all hollies are dioecious, those flowers attract the attention of bees who need all the support and food we can give them. The female plants develop those lovely berries that provide food for birds, deer (I know some of you are thrilled to hear that) and other critters. Unlike that loosey-goosey privet you've been growing, yaupon holly has a tight branching structure that makes a protected spot for birds' nests.

Did I mention that many conservation-minded landowners are now paying to have privet, which spreads dramatically by bird droppings, eradicated in their bottomlands, where it out-competes native species? Wait, at least finish the article before you head out with your saw!

There are now many cultivars of yaupon holly, which in its original form grows into a multi-trunked small tree, 15 to 20 feet tall. Most gardeners like to limb up this plant into tree form to showcase the dramatic trunks, somewhat contorted and with a lovely gray bark. Ask a good nursery to secure plants vegetatively propagated from females so you and the animals who share your space can all enjoy the berries. Throw in one or two male "escorts," and the bees will happily transfer the pollen to the waiting female flowers.

Yaupon holly hedges fit many situations because this small tree grows happily in both sun and part shade. It does require good drainage and as a transplant from the woodlands, enjoys organic mulch (like those leaves we are now starting to rake). Once you get these hollies well established, they scoff at drought, a good trait in a hedge behind the garage that you might forget to water. They do tend to send up suckers, especially if you dig around underneath them. You might need to come in once or twice a year and cut back volunteers. Just don't perform that chore when mockingbirds are taking advantage of yaupon's great nesting potential or you will be run out of town by those highly protective parents.

You may have wondered at the specific epithet, vomitoria. The tiny leaves of this plant are loaded with caffeine. Native Americans used these leaves to make a tea known as Cherokee Black Tea, among other names, that played an important part in their culture. At certain times of the year, they used this caffeine-laden potion as a purgative, giving rise to that unappealing name. That shouldn't put off gardeners but add to their interest in this useful native.

Amanda McNulty is a Clemson Extension agent in Sumter County. She will answer your gardening questions in this twice-monthly column. Send your ques-tions to amcnult@clemson.edu.

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