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.  

Persimmons – Diospyros virginiana

Persimmon fruit
Persimmon fruit

Mr. ‘Possom is a farmer
And his crop? Persimmon trees!
Many a woodland stocks his product
And he grows his crop with ease.

How he loves those ripe persimmons
Sweet as syrup, smooth as silk —
Like a gourmet loves his entrees
Like a baby loves his milk.

By Reverend John F. Dorsey (1916- )

This slow growing fruiting tree is native to Eastern North America. It can often be found in dry woods, old fields, and clearings. This deciduous tree is becoming less frequently found in the wild and is listed as of Special Concern in Connecticut and Threatened in New York.

The earliest reference to them that I have found was by Hernando De Sotto who first found them in Florida in 1539. The settlers quickly learned not to eat them until after the first frost, which took away the astringent aspects and rendered the fruit sweet. Later, during the Civil War, when times were tough, the seeds would be used as a coffee substitute by boiling them. And for those of you who like beer and other fermented foods, try a southern Appalachian idea of fermenting the ripe fruit to make beer!

The Cherokee are credited with some of the earliest baked breads using the persimmon fruit, which they served to the Europeans. The Asian persimmon is rarely cooked as they get astringent with heat, but the native American persimmon is often baked into puddings, pies, & breads. Jams and Jellies are also common from the fruit.

This tree also contributed to the ancient medicine wisdom of the south. The unripe, very astringent fruit would be boiled into a decoction and taken internally to stop bloody stools. The Cherokee used a decoction of the inner bark to treat thrush, sore throats and as a wash for warts or cancers. A few twigs boiled and cooled is a good wash for poison ivy and its kin, taking away the itch and finally drying out the blisters.

There is an old use of the persimmon that I have always found fascinating. Take fresh persimmon seeds and split them open. In the center you will find the little whitish sprout…the shape of this sprout was believed to predict the weather for the coming winter. If the sprout looked like a knife it would be an icy, cold winter. If it looked like a fork it would be a mild winter. And if the little sprout resembled a spoon, get the shovels ready ‘cause snow was sure to blow!

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.

Red Birds in a Tree – Scrophularia macrantha

Red Birds in a Tree fruit
Red Birds in a Tree fruit

‘On the mainland the figwort is known for its medicinal properties,

and in the islands for its magical powers.

On the mainland the leaf of the plant is applied to cuts and bruises,

and the tuber to sores and tumours.

In the islands the plant was placed on the cow fetter,

under the milk boyne, and over the byre door,

to ensure milk in the cows.’

 

In  Carmina Gadelica, Volume 2, by Alexander Carmicheal, [1900]

 

This native plant of New Mexico has become rare in nature, growing only in a small area of New Mexico. It carries the common names of New Mexico Figwort and Mimbres Figwort for that reason. It is usually considered Rare or Endangered. A relatively new interest has been given this plant and the nursery industry has assigned the new name of Red Birds in a Tree to it. The new name is due to the striking red flowers it bears from July to October in its native habitat. Here on the east coast I have seen this plant happy and flourishing in the University of Delaware’s Botanical Garden. I saw it in August and the flowers seemed done, but it had great seedpods growing profusely.

 

The Yavapai people of Arizona had at one time used the leaves as spring greens and ate them boiled. No other reference to this variety of figwort being consumed could be found.

 

The genus name, Scrophularia is based on the word scrofula (tuberculosis of the lymph nodes found in the neck) which members of this genus have been used to treat. Although there is no mention of this specific member having been used for anything medicinal!

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.

Ponderosa Lemon – Citrus limon ‘Ponderosa’

Ponderosa Lemon
Ponderosa Lemon

Out of lemon flowers

loosed

on the moonlight, love’s

lashed and insatiable

essences,

sodden with fragrance,

the lemon tree’s yellow

emerges….

 

 By Pablo Nerunda

This lemon cultivar is a chance development on a farm in Hagerstown, Maryland. In about 1887 George Bowman found this cultivar, a hybrid of a citron and lemon, but it was not introduced or named until 1900. The original lemon is believed to have originated in India, but the exact place is difficult to know since this tree has followed man as he explored and settled new areas around the world. The lemon was taken with Christopher Columbus to Hispaniola in 1493, and the Spanish were credited with its early introduction to St Augustine, Florida.

 

This relatively small evergreen tree (only 12-24 ft tall at full growth) has thorns, like so many other citrus relatives, and produces flowers year round. This constant flower production means you are likely to see flowers, and fruit (at any stage of growth) growing on the tree at the same time. These fruit on the Ponderosa Lemon are similar in appearance to the regular lemon; they are just much larger and lumpy! They can be as large as 2 – 5 pounds in weight when fully grown. Their rind or skin is also very thick. One of these Ponderosa Lemons can make several pitchers of lemonade!

 

The taste and aroma of this variety is also almost identical to the regular lemon seen in the grocery store; and can be used in identical situations. The juice can be made into lemonade, or used to flavor any meat of fish dish. It can also be made into desserts (such as lemon meringue pie) and as a flavoring almost anywhere you can imagine it. Often in cooking it is the zest that is desired, and for some dishes is highly prized.

 

The left over plant matter after making juice commercially is used to produce citric oil, pectin, and citric acid. All of these are used in the food industry and by the cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies. Lemon juice can be used to remove stains, and with salt to clean copper pots safely. The peel oil has been used to manufacture furniture polish, and detergents.

In cosmetics it has been utilized in creams for bleaching freckles, for facial cleaning creams, in soaps, and shampoos.

 

In herbal medicine any lemon can be used the same way, it is known as a diuretic, antiscorbutic, astringent, and febrifuge. In Italy it is utilized to treat gingivitis, stomatitis, and inflammation of the tongue. In Cuba the root is used for fever; while in West Africa the root is used for gonorrhea.

Have fun with the kids and make invisible ink! Take the juice of 1 lemon (3 teaspoons if no fresh is available), and add 1 teaspoon of water. Mix these well. Now have the kids ‘write’ with a brush or fingertip a message onto normal paper. Let them watch this dry. As it dries the ‘writing’ disappears! It will only reappear if a candle is passed below the paper. Please do not allow children to do this activity without proper supervision, NO Fires Here!