Tag Archives: Dahoon Holly

Dahoon Holly …the Dollar Tree of Fruits

Ilex cassine

(Ilex is an ancient name for an Oak.   Cassine comes from cassina, the Black Drink, see below)

Aquifoliaceae, the Holly Family

Ilex cassine 5

Dahoon Fruits by John Bradford

Beautiful autumn in the Florida woods: cool at long last, fall color in the Poison Ivy, goldenrods,  “asters,”  and Dahoon Holly berries (technically drupes) holiday festive in red, orange, and yellowish.  Lots and lots of them.

Dahoon Holly was the celebrity this morning as John and I chased ugly little weeds at the Haney Creek Natural Area a little north of the St. Lucie River.

Ilex cassine 8

The Dahoon had flowers today, by JB (this photo not taken today however). This is male, the males and females mostly on separate trees.

To take care of the “internet-type” story first, the species name cassine comes from cassina, the Black Drink consumed by prehistoric peoples at big shindigs along the southeastern coast, and by early settlers, including  future Philadelphia Mayor Jonathan Dickinson, not to his taste.

Hollies are among the few plant groups in addition to coffee and tea offering beverage-worthy levels of caffeine.  Around the world, there are holly-based teas, most notably Yerba Mate in South America and in Publix Supermarkets.   Our local holly tea was the Black Drink with two native species in the brew…Yaupon, Ilex vomitoria, and Dahoon, Ilex cassine.  The former may have been more important, although that detail is lost to history.

Ilex cassine lichen

Dahoon tends toward white bark,  often decorated with smiling red lichens.

Don’t bite a Dahoon Holly fruit or leaf.  They are astoundingly bitter, as I experienced today, resembling in flavor the related and well named Gallberry, Ilex glabra.  Chugging the Black Drink caused retching, after all. Why would such delicious-looking fruits, the colors of apples, taste like Athlete’s Foot medicine?

First of all, they may taste better to the deer, small mammals, and birds who eat them, although I do not believe it.   The fruits persist largely uneaten from autumn into the winter when the flavor presumably improves.  This is a general characteristic of Hollies, and observers contend that Holly fruits become tasty(er) during winter in order to sidestep the competing rush of fall-ripening fruits on other species.   Wait them out and be the only game in town later, perhaps matching the seasonalities of certain birds. Holly fruits are reportedly “cheap,” low in fats and sugars, and thus probably not very competitive when everything else is ripe in early autumn, and then more attractive later freed of  competition.  “We’re lousy fruits but all there is.”

Acer rubrum leaves Baker Rd.

While we contemplated the Dahoon today a posse of raccoons watched from a tree.   Whether or not they enjoy Dahoon fruits is unclear, and I did not examine their droppings for the characteristic “seeds,” which come four per fruit.


For the most part, Dahoon Holly is a species of marshes and swamps.  And that brings us to what I think is the interesting part:   these species are “at home” at every phase of ecological succession from soup to nuts.    Let’s stop a second and set the stage:

If you destroy a mature forest  (fire, storm, flood, machinery) and let it regrow, getting back to “mature” is step-wise,  requiring a series of communities occupying the site replacing each other over decades, from early “pioneer species” (mostly low weedy temporary plants) to the final woody “climax community.”   Dahoon Holly owns the entire process.  It is shade tolerant and can became a large tree in a mature forest community.  Upon becoming large it forms a broad base with prop roots.

In a middle-aged, shrub-dominated swamp or marsh, look for the Dahoon Hollies rising above the saw palmettoes, buttonbush, and wax myrtle.    And now the really good part: in an open, young,  perhaps fire-cleared marshy area dominated by small more or less herbaceous plants, such as Painted Sedges, Grasses, and Xyris, puny Dahoon Hollies merely three feet tall join right in and show off big lurid fruit displays. You could (and I have) mistaken them for milkweed flower clusters from the distance.    The little Dahoon Hollies seem to “prioritize” and invest disproportionate energy in reproduction while still toddlers.

Ilex cassine young 1

This tiny Dahoon  has more fruit than the rest of the plant’s mass put together.

What may allow this is that “cheapness” of their fruits as we just considered.  Maybe a baby can’t muster the energy needed to make garish displays of fatty sugary fruits, but cheap fruits…all show but no nutrition…hey, no problem, how many do you want?


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What Tea-Drinking Philadelphia Mayor Escaped from Cannibals?

Dahoon Holly

Ilex cassine


On this blustery overcast late autumn day John and George walking Seabranch State Park felt the chilly ghost of Jonathan Dickinson pass by retracing his shipwrecked footsteps near were we were today, and at nearly the same season.

We enjoyed our field trip, but Jonathan Dickinson, not so much. As we arrive at Thanksgiving, contemplate JD’s heartfelt thanks for escaping Florida in 1699:

“God’s protecting Providence, man’s surest help and defense in the times of the greatest difficulty and most imminent danger, evidenced in the remarkable deliverance of diverse persons from the devouring waves of the sea, amongst which they suffered shipwreck. And also from the more cruelly devouring jaws of the inhumane cannibals of Florida. Faithfully related by one of the persons concerned therein, Jonathan Dickinson.”

I wonder if Jonathan Dickinson at any point had a few moments to enjoy the beautiful plants of what is now Seabranch State Park.  If he’d not been starving, fearing for the life of his family and companions, freezing, and threatened by murder, Jonathan might’ve had a chance to enjoy the golden asters, palafox, and blue curls.  He did come across one of the more beautiful autumn species, magnificent for its red berries, Dahoon Holly, Ilex cassine.   JD encountered it as the tea known as black drink.

Dahoon Holly.  All photos today except the fungal galls by John Bradford.

Dahoon Holly. All photos today except the fungal galls by John Bradford.

Bear with me through another long quote from Jonathan Dickinson. It is worth it:

 “In one part of this house where the fire was kept choose one, was an Indian man, having a pot on the fire wherein he was making a drink of the leaves of a shrub which we understood afterwards by the Spaniard is called caseena, boiling the said leaves, after they had parched them in a pot; then with a gourd having a long neck and at the top of that a small hole which the top of one’s finger could cover, and at the side of it a round hole of 2 inches diameter, they take the liquor out of the pot and put it into a deep brown bowl, which being almost filled containeth nigh 3 gallons. With this gourd they brew the liquor and make it froth very much. It looks of a deep brown color. In the brewing of this liquor was this noise made which we thought strange; for the pressing of this gourd gently down into the liquor, and the air which it contained being forced out of the little hole at the top occasion to sound; and according to the time and motion given would be various. This drink when made, and cooked to sup, was in a conch shell first carried to the Cacique, who threw part of it on the ground, and the rest he drank up, and then would make a loud he-m; and afterwards the cup passed of the rest of the Cacique’s associates…”

(There is some disagreement and confusion in the historical literature as to the relative importance of Dahoon Holly as opposed to Yaupon Holly in preparation of the black drink. Both species apparently were in the brew.   Without much evidence I suspect  JD’s quote to refer to Dahoon Holly.  Its species name cassine is a historical term for the black drink.  The species name for Yaupon Holly, vomitoria, likewise refers to the black drink which caused vomitoria after indulgence.)

Dahoon Holly is one of multiple Holly species native to Florida, the other locally abundant native Holly being  Gallberry.  Gallberry is a small shrub, whereas Dahoon Holly can range from a good-sized shrub to a tree, generally in wet habitats.   The light-toned bark is often decorated with red lichens. The tiny springtime flowers are white. The trees are usually described as having separate male and female individuals, although I don’t think this is strictly true.



On the female trees in season the red berries can be as eye-catching as a fire truck.

Let’s return to making tea from Hollys.  Beyond coffee and grocery store Tea, how many plants provide caffeinated beverages?  Holly’s are one.  In Asia, South America (yerba mate), and in the Southeastern United States multiple Holly yield caffeinated teas.  There’s more than one bioactive compound in Holly preparations, and everything is not necessarily safe to drink.  You have theobromine, an alkaloid occurring also in cacao.  More ominously to the tea-sipper, reports of preparing the black drink, including the one given above, mention whipping it into a froth. That’s a hint of compounds called saponins, which lather in water, kill fish, and are variably toxic to humans.  Among the old reports of Dahoon Holly’s use in making the black drink, are also reports of applications as soap.

This post is getting a little long so let me finish it up quickly with an unrelated item potentially of interest to some readers, who may notice it on their own.  A lot of Hollys, as well as several species unrelated to Hollys, develop galls and growth deformities from a fungus known as Sphaeropsis tumefaciens.  Dahoon Holly is particularly susceptible to this pest. The fungus causes knots and swellings on the young branches, and more conspicuously, witch’s brooms, these being dense tufts of young branches rising from the same point.

Witch's broom and galls on infested Dahoon branch.

Witch’s broom and galls on infested Dahoon branch.

To sum it all up, some of us may give thanks for a chance to escape Florida cannibals, some may feel gratitude for teas, some may like Holly Berries, others may prefer Halle Berry, but we give thanks for the beauty, intricacy, and serenity of nature our gift from Providence to enjoy.

(Yes, JD went on to become Mayor of Philadelphia.)

Happy Thanksgiving!

No inhumane jaws around here!

No inhumane jaws around here!


Posted by on November 21, 2014 in Dahoon holly



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