Archive for the ‘Shrub’ Category

Possomhaw Holly – Ilex deciduas

Possumhaw Holly
Possumhaw Holly

O reader! hast thou ever stood to see
The Holly-tree?
The eye that contemplates it well perceives
Its glossy leaves
Ordered by an Intelligence so wise
As might confound the Atheist’s sophistries.


By Robert Southey (1774-1843)

 This native of low, wet woods can be found throughout the southeast United States. It is one of the deciduous hollies, meaning it loses its leaves come winter. It is state listed as Threatened in Florida. The largest specimen found to date is located in South Carolina. It measures 3 feet around, and 42 feet tall!


The berries are generally considered toxic to humans. The low level toxicity causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. But all manner of small mammals, songbirds, and gamebirds, as well as deer find parts of this bush good eating. The deer being the only one to eat the twigs; all the others find the berries to be a delicacy.


Because of those same berries it is often planted as a winter ornamental, and a wildlife attractant. The branches with the berries have been collected to use in Christmas decorations. The wood of this shrub is not considered useful due to its small size.


Hollies in general (including this one) were used by the Alabama Indians. They took the inner bark of the tree, made a decoction from it and applied this to the eyes.  

Meadowsweet – Spirea alba var. latifolia

White Meadowsweet
White Meadowsweet

Through grass, through amber’d cornfields, our slow Stream–
Fringed with its flags and reeds and rushes tall,
And Meadowsweet, the chosen of them all
By wandering children….


By William Allingham (1824-1889)


This perennial shrub of the Rose family is native to Northeastern North America and can be found growing in wet areas such as edges of marshes, bogs and ditches, along streams, and wet prairies. In Kentucky, and Tennessee it is considered Endangered. While in Ohio it is listed as Extripated (locally extinct).  The plant was imported into parts of Europe; Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, United Kingdom. In Belgium and Latvia it is listed as Invasive, and in Lithuania as potentially Invasive!


In herbal medicine of the Ojibwa Indians a tea of leaves and flowers was used to ease childbirth. Early settlers used the inner bark as a pain killer, much like other early aspirin like herbs (willow. etc). Unlike willow or poplar, which also contains Salicylates, the properties and strength of the aspirin like effects is consistent from plant to plant. In minute amounts Meadowsweet can also be used on stomach issues. The Blackfoot Indians used a tea as an enema and a vagina douche to treat infections.


The leaves smell like almonds and have been used to keep linens fresh and nicely scented. The leaves have also been use in making an astringent skin tonic. The leaves have been dried and used as a China tea substitute, supposedly tasting much the same as the original. The early settlers ate the roots.


In magic use this plant and its flowers are used to promote love, balance and harmony. Among the Druids the Meadowsweet, Vervain and Verbena were their three most sacred herbs. The use of fresh flowers on the alter has been frequent when casting a love spell, also use the dried petals in love mixtures. The fresh flowers were often included in wedding bouquets. In Welsh Mythology, Gwydion and Math created a woman out of oak blossom, broom, and meadowsweet and named her Blodeuwedd (“flower face”).

Leatherleaf Mahonia – Mahonia bealei

Leatherleaf Mahonia leaflets and fruit
Leatherleaf Mahonia leaflets and fruit

This evergreen is a native of China and brought to the United States in 1848 as an ornamental. In 1848, after the Opium Wars in China had ended which opened up trade, Robert Fortune first found this plant. An interesting story surrounding his first encounter goes like this: Fortune saw the leaves of this plant peeking above the walls of an enclosed courtyard of someone’s home. He didn’t know the people, but apparently that didn’t matter to him. He opened their front door and walked through the house to the courtyard where he considered digging up the shrub, but felt it was too large to survive. In the next town he offered a reward to anyone who would bring him smaller specimens he could carry with him. In short order he received three separate shrubs.


This interesting plant is recommended in the southeastern United States as a wildlife attractant, but it is that wildlife that it attracts that has contributed so heavily to its becoming an almost invasive plant there! The fruits are abundant and are greatly relished by the birds, which eat it and spread the seed in their excrement. So this once garden plant is now naturalized throughout the south. The Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council has it listed as a Rank 2 NIS plant (significant threat). This means that it poses a threat of becoming invasive, but as of yet is not spreading easily into native plant communities.


The leaves on this plant are very attention-grabbing. They resemble holly leaves in basic shape and in having points on the leaflets, but they are opposite unlike holly leaves that are alternating. The other major difference is that these are not opposite leaves, but leaflets…which make them all together one very large leaf! The flowers are an interesting yellow, growing abundantly in large clusters and appearing in late winter. Walk past on a crisp winter, very early spring day and get a whiff of citrus in the air…those are the Mahonia flowers!


The fruit which follows start out green but swiftly turn bluish black with a grayish bloom. If you can beat the wildlife to them (birds will strip the plant bare in a few short days) then they are actually edible. There are many seeds wrapped up in very little flesh, but the taste has a very refreshing, slightly acidic taste. They have been recommended added to cereal. They ripen in April and May and provide Vitamin C.


Since this plant is in the Barberry family of plants it has Berberine in the rhizomes which make it a bitter tonic with antibacterial effects. A decoction of the root and stems has been used to treat pulmonary tuberculosis, recurring fever, and cough in rundown body systems, rheumatoid arthritis, backache, weak knees, dysentery, and enteritis.

Compact Japanese Holly – Ilex crenata

Japanese Compact Holly
Japanese Compact Holly

The Japanese or Box-leaved Holly was imported from the Orient where it is native to Chine, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Sakhalin (a large island in the N Pacific belonging to Russia). Depending on the variety you choose for your garden it can be like an exclamation point, drawing attention, or a classic hedge plant enclosing others!


It is an evergreen shrub, but without the pointy, sharp leaves we so often associate with Hollies. The leaves do more resemble the Box shrub for which one of its common names derives. It is a slow grower, often keeping the same relative size for years in your landscape structure.


As with all Hollies it needs male and female shrubs to produce berries. It blooms with small white flowers around mid-spring. These are followed by dark, almost black drupes with four seeds. The flowers are a wonderful bee attractant, and yet the shrub is deer-resistant.


If you want this shrub don’t bother trying the seeds, as they very rarely germinate in cultivation. Instead take semi-hardwood cuttings. These root surprisingly easily! To plant out make sure the soil is acidic and moist, but well drained. If the variety you are growing has solid green leaves full sun is great, but the variegated leaved varieties often need some dappled shade to shine.


Some care must be taken with pets and small children. The leaves, but more especially the berries contain Illicin. If a sufficient quantity is consumed then the signs of toxicity are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stupor due to depression of the central nervous system. Fortunately the Illicin produced by the berries and leaves is a bitter that discourages ingestion. The toxicity has never lead to death, and some report that the reports of toxicity are over stated.

Staghorn Sumac – Rhus typhina

Staghorn Sumac berries
Staghorn Sumac berries

…Now by the brook the maple leans

With all his glory spread,

And all the sumachs on the hills

Have turned their green to red…

by William Wilfred Campbell

This native to eastern North America grows where the soils are rich near streams, along roadways, railway embankments and at the edges of woods. From June through until September the fruit can be found ripe and ready for harvest. The seeds need to be fully ripe, deep red and sticky, or the flavor is not at its best.

When I was a young teen at Rock Creek Girl Scout camp in the mountains of western Maryland, we had a naturalist come to speak to us one summer. He told us about endangered species and also about those plants considered weeds that could become invasive, like the Staghorn Sumac. His logic was if we all harvested the berries every year, leaving enough for the birds in the winter, then they couldn’t become invasive. On top of that everyone would be drinking one of the most enjoyable natural, health drinks available.

He had us wash the berries, and then crush them in a pitcher. To that he added fresh spring water, a bit of sweetener (he used honey) and stirred well. About 4 hours later when we were hot and sweaty after tromping through he woods with him, he had us fill a glass with ice and he strained the water from the sumac berries over the cubes of ice giving us our first taste of wonder!

Although infrequently used in herbal medicine today Sumac was used by the Native American of this continent for centuries. Almost every part of the bush was useful in medicine.

            Leaves: are astringent

            Bark: are antiseptic, astringent, galactogogue, tonic

            Roots: are astringent, blood purifier, diuretic, emetic

            Berries: are astringent, blood purifier

            Sap: is astringent

The only caution in using this plant is that some sensitive people will develop a rash from contact with this plant. Even with the rash, it is NOT to be confused with its poisonous cousin Poison Sumac!

Staghorn has a large amount of tannin in its leaves and bark, which allows it to be used as a mordant in dyeing. The leaves also produce a brown dye. A yellow dye is obtained from the roots; and an orange dye is extracted from the inner bark when mixed with Bloodroot. A black ink can be had from the boiling of the leaves and the fruit together.

A practice that was popular many years ago, and is still is some small use today, is to take and dry the leaves and berries. These dried components are then added to other herbs and used as a smoking mixture by some Native American Tribes

Oleander – Nerium oleander

Oleander flower
Oleander flower

Love cautiously, the Oleander,
from a distance, behold its blooms.
For within its vibrant grandeur,
death’s brew does certainly loom…

Paula Swanson


This native shrub of Northern Africa may be one of the most poisonous plants on earth! Every part of the oleander is toxic causing severe digestive upset, heart trouble, contact dermatitis.  In horses there appears severe diarrhea and abnormal heartbeat. The faster that the stomach contents can be eliminated through vomiting the better, followed by charcoal administration to absorb as much of what remains as possible.


Through history oleander has been used as medicine, although it is not recommended due to its extreme toxicity. The Mesopotamians, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Ancient Arab believed in the use for medical treatment. The Babylonians used oleander compounded with licorice to treat hangovers, and the Arab used as an early treatment for cancer. In more recent history the Chinese and Russian physicians have used oleander to treat heart failure for decades.


Heavily diluted oleander preparations have been used to treat muscle cramps, asthma, corns, menstrual pain, epilepsy, paralysis, skin diseases, heart problems, and cancer.

Hazelnuts – Corylus avellana


Wakening from the dreaming forest there, the hazel-sprig
sang under my tongue, its drifting fragrance
climbed up through my conscious mind…


By  Pablo Neruda

This native of Europe and western Asia grows in woods and hedgerows. The Hazel shrubs were part of the hedgerows that were traditional field boundaries in England. The twigs are used as dowsing rods. The wood is soft, easily split, but not very durable…yet it was used for inlay work, small pieces of furniture, wattles, basketry, etc.


Several parts are used medicinally…the bark, leaves, catkins and fruits. They are astringent, diaphoretic, febrifuge, nutritive, and odontalgic (treating toothache). The seed is used as a stomachic and tonic. The oil is used in babies and small children to treat threadworms and pinworms.


The nut or cob can be eaten raw or roasted, added to breads, cakes, biscuits, and sweets. An edible oil that is used in salad dressings and baking is expressed from the nuts. They are rich in protein, unsaturated fat, thiamine and Vitamin B6.


Hazel twigs have been used to make magic wands, and dowsing rods. To create a quick, simple circle of protection use a Hazel rod to draw a circle around you in the dirt! In a similar way the twigs hung over window frames and the door lintel will protect the house from lightening.