Standing like sentries on either side of our decrepit porch are two semi-maintained holly bushes. These, like all of the remaining foundation plantings predate our ownership of the house. I tend not to get attached to shrubbery. I guess I’d promote that as a general rule: don’t get too attached to shrubbery, it’ll never love you back. In a less-than-literal sense, this holly has grown on me.

Until this spring I paid little attention to these holly bushes. Last year I did trim them as their unkempt spiky leaves had encroached on the path our postal carriers walked. But this year we were forced to use the front door for a few months and I noticed that holly, Ibex aquifolium, actually has some really lovely features. In spring they are covered in white flowers that are ministered to by several species of pollinators. They’re dioecious, that is the male and female flowers are on different plants, so the bees spend a lot time zipping back and forth between the plants rubbing the pollen all over the stigmas.

Soon some hard green “berries” developed. According to pointy-headed nomenclature, these shouldn’t be called “berries” because they are drupes: the seed is encased in a hard shell which is then covered by the fleshy fruit.

In late September not too long before the first frost the drupes start to turn vibrant red. The cheery contrast with the leaves lasts into the winter and has long been used for solstice decorations. Once Christianity triumphed in Europe, the tradition continued, but had the added resonance of looking like Jesus’ crown of thorns with drops of blood.

To the boarders the red drupes are something else: butt-berries. I don’t know exactly how this happened, but the indigenes and my father spent a part of an afternoon a few years ago conducting a running battle with holly drupes all over the yard. None of the combatants have really moved on from 5 year-old humor: the only thing funnier than butts, is the things that come out of butts (gaseous or otherwise). Hence we have butt-berries. I have done my best to convince them that botanically they are wrong: they are butt-drupes. I guess that has some bad connotations. I think it’s even funnier.

Some among you might be shocked that I allow the monsters to play with butt-berries as received wisdom describes them as toxic. Some totally unreliable websites claim that eating just a few berries can be fatal. This is entirely untrue. Consuming several fruits might give you a pretty unpleasant stomach ache and might even make you throw-up, but they’re not toxic. Luckily butt-berries are both hard and bitter, so the children show little interest in them. This is in contrast to John Boehner who is soft and bitter; it’s more like John McCain. After a freeze, butt-berries soften up, and become a little less bitter. That’s why they make such great treats for birds in the winter. It’s an adaptive strategy for the plant — the seeds get spread all over in little fertilizer packets every winter.

The toxins in butt-berries include caffeine and theobromine along with some saponins. Saponins are particularly bitter and can be toxic in high doses. Both caffeine and theobromine are also toxic at high doses but are both present in chocolate at the delicious dose. It’s the presence of these fun/dangerous chemicals that leads to the wide spread consumption of another member of the holly genus, herba mate, or Ilex paraguariensis.

Caleb Rounds

Author: Caleb Rounds

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