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