Field Guide

Like its ubiq­ui­tous Christ­mas cousin, this shrub of­fers a splash of colour to the win­ter gloom (but with­out the nasty sharps)

Canadian Wildlife - - FEATURES - By Mel Wal­wyn

Like its ubiq­ui­tous Christ­mas cousin, Cana­dian Holly of­fers a splash of colour to the win­ter gloom (with­out the nasty sharps)

Known to many as Cana­dian (or Canada) holly, this at­trac­tive shrub has quite a few al­ter­na­tive names by which you may know it, de­pend­ing on where you live: black alder win­ter­berry, de­cid­u­ous holly, inkberry, swamp holly and fever bush. There is no bet­ter name though, no more Cana­dian name, I think, than “win­ter­berry.” It is the fruit of the most Cana­dian sea­son. The way th­ese bright red berries on de­nuded branches stand out against a snowy back­drop is a wel­come splash of bright colour amid the drab hiver­nal pal­ette.

Although its leaves don’t have the deep in­den­ta­tions as­so­ci­ated with other species of holly, its bi­no­mial name, Ilex ver­ti­cil­lata, comes from the Latin names for oak (ilex), which the fo­liage of other hol­lies re­sem­bles, and for whorled (ver­ti­cil­lata), re­fer­ring to the berries’ po­si­tion around the stem. Grow­ing to one to five me­tres tall — which is tall in­deed—it can also form a dense thicket where con­di­tions are wet. Like some but not all of its ilex cousins, it is dioe­cious (from the Greek mean­ing “two house­holds”): there are sep­a­rate male and fe­male plants, with at least one male plant needed to pol­lenate the fe­males. The plant pro­duces glob­u­lar red berries, about seven mil­lime­tres across, and small blos­soms with five or more white petals. Its ser­rated, pointy fo­liage is dark

green with a high gloss. It is one of the sub­set of de­cid­u­ous hol­lies: it loses its leaves each au­tumn. In do­ing so it be­comes a dis­tinc­tive and dec­o­ra­tive ad­di­tion to your som­no­lent gar­den. Cut and dried it is of­ten used in­doors as well.

As at­trac­tive as it is, Ilex ver­ti­cil­lata is also poi­sonous, con­tain­ing a toxin called theo­bromine, which is an al­ka­loid sim­i­lar to the caf­feine you get in co­coa or a cup of joe. Al­ka­loids are ni­tro­gen-in­fused al­ka­line chem­i­cals orig­i­nat­ing in plants: they are de­rived from amino acids, the es­sen­tial foun­da­tions of pro­teins, which es­pe­cially af­fect the ner­vous sys­tem. Theo­bromine and caf­feine are sim­i­lar in that they are re­lated al­ka­loids, though theo­bromine is weaker in terms of its im­pact on the hu­man ner­vous sys­tem and stronger in stim­u­lat­ing the heart: it raises your heart rate while open­ing up blood ves­sels. While the dis­rup­tive chem­i­cals oc­cur at their high­est in the berries, the bark and leaves are also toxic. Co­pi­ous quan­ti­ties of th­ese berries can re­sult in dizzi­ness, stom­ach pain, nau­sea, di­ar­rhea, el­e­vated pulse rate and low blood pres­sure, as well as drowsi­ness, par­tic­u­larly in chil­dren and small live­stock. One can as­sume this is why it has tra­di­tion­ally been called fever bush.

Per­haps sur­pris­ingly, for some­thing this dis­rup­tive to the sys­tem, win­ter­berry plants his­tor­i­cally have had nu­mer­ous medic­i­nal ap­pli­ca­tions. There was a time when holly leaves and the bark were brewed tea to cre­ate a tonic, as well as a treat­ment for fevers. The bark was also made into a skin poul­tice to ease rashes and erup­tions. And the berries were taken as a purga­tive in­tended to ex­pel in­testi­nal mal­adies and in­trud­ers. There is no sci­en­tific ev­i­dence to sug­gest that such reme­dies work at all, while there’s con­sid­er­able proof they can be harm­ful. Do not use them this way. Th­ese folk ap­pli­ca­tions have all been dis­missed and sup­planted by safe and ef­fec­tive medicines.

Still, win­ter­berry has its uses. As a dec­o­ra­tive ad­di­tion to your win­ter gar­den, the plant’s vivid berries of­fer a splash of colour at a dreary time. And in­doors, over the hol­i­day sea­son they pro­vide a re­fresh­ing and Cana­dian al­ter­na­tive to the tra­di­tional com­mon Euro­pean holly.

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