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Arbo Paths: Native plants boast winter food for wildlife

Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is currently sporting red berries in the Arboretum’s exhibits, and along local roadsides. (Photo, Crosby Arboretum Archives).

Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is currently sporting red berries in the Arboretum’s exhibits, and along local roadsides. (Photo, Crosby Arboretum Archives).


Visitors have been commenting on the wax myrtles growing near our bridges, currently loaded with waxy bluish gray berries and are truly a sight to behold. This shrub is so common in the Arboretum’s exhibits is southern wax myrtle that it will never turns heads, except in the winter months. Both the berries and leaves will yield a delightful bayberry fragrance, prompting stories from visitors who remember their parents crushing wax myrtle branches to lay under the porch to keep away fleas from their dogs, or rubbing the crushed leaves on their skin to repel mosquitoes.
Southern wax myrtle (Morella cerifera) will grow in both wet and dry conditions, and tolerates compacted soils, salt spray, and flooding. The seeds are dispersed by birds, and around fifty species are known to consume the berries, particularly wild turkey and bobwhite quail. Birds’ digestive systems remove the wax from the fruit, necessary for germination. Young wax myrtle will pop up unexpectedly in many places, and are easily transplanted. The plant can be pruned for denser growth, and is a great addition to a wildlife garden or used to create a screen at a property line. It will also provide cover for nesting birds.
Another common “edge” species is yaupon holly, an evergreen shrub that at first glance may be mistaken for Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense). During group tours, visitors to the Arboretum have asked how we handle the “privet issue” at our public garden, and then are surprised to learn what they are looking at is really yaupon! Can you tell the two shrubs apart? Knowing the difference might be handy if you are questioning what to leave and what to prune from a hedgerow.
It is easy to tell the difference between the two plants by touch. The limbs of yaupon holly are much stiffer and generally shorter, while privet has a lankier, soft, sprawling form. On my morning drive to work, I see many woodland edges lined with the dense thickets of privet. The aggressive nature of this shrub makes it a serious threat to the biological diversity of Mississippi’s native plant communities. But I have also read success stories about restoration projects that removed privet stands, and seeing native species, such as pawpaw, return.

The hedgerow located between the Picayune Walmart and the interstate contains large numbers of yaupon holly. These are currently covered in gorgeous red berries, making it easily distinguished from privet. Mockingbirds, often seen darting in and out of this edge, will consume yaupon berries, along with American robins, cedar waxwings, and many other species of birds. However, it will take a number of freezes and thaws to make the berries palatable.
Other shrubs in the Arboretum’s exhibits that provide winter food for wildlife include American beautyberry, inkberry holly, American holly, winterberry holly, parsley hawthorn, red chokeberry, arrow-wood viburnum, greenbriar, and poison ivy. Yes, these last two plants may not be appealing to humans, but they have a high value to birds and other wildlife.
Native species offer low-care sources of winter food that becomes critically important to animals once cold weather sets in and insects and other food become less available. Many of these plants will be available at our Arbor Day Native Plant Sale on Saturday, February 7.

Would you like to learn how to craft pine needle baskets? Call to pre-register for a workshop with Judy Breland, Stone County Extension Agent, to be held at the Arboretum on Saturday, January 10 from 9:30 to noon. The cost is $7 for non-members and $5 for members.

The Arboretum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. We will be closed Christmas Eve and Day, and New Year’s Eve and Day. Come take a walk and experience the beauty of our winter landscape! We are located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59). For more information, call the office at (601) 799-2311 or see our website at www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu.

FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION: Read more about privet in “Mississippi’s Top 10 Invasive Weeds” on the Mississippi State University Extension Service website, www.MSUcares.com, to read more about how to attract birds and other wildlife to your yard. From the MSUcares Publications menu, search for “Establishing a Backyard Wildlife Habitat” (Publication No. 2402). Also, pages 60 through 66 of “Selecting Landscape Plants” (Publication 0666) deal specifically with landscape plants to attract birds and wildlife.

By Patricia Drackett