Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, evergreen plants and decorations in the home and the landscape are a welcome sight in the South. Evergreen trees and bright berries form the basis of these decorations, a delight to both humans and wildlife. Wildlife enjoy them in the garden, of course, using the plants for shelter and the berries for food.
Evergreen trees, particularly conifers, are a key component for many of the decorations whether they are the Christmas tree itself or the source of evergreen boughs and roping. Christmas tree farming produces a variety of trees available for cutting. One of the favorites is Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) which is not native to Georgia except in one high elevation county. Other trees include sand pine (Pinus clausa), which is grown and sold in south Georgia, Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana), white pine (Pinus strobus), and eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana).
Unlike most of the other trees that require extensive grooming to produce the right “shape”, eastern redcedar (which despite the name is really a juniper!) naturally produces a pleasing Christmas tree shape. It also has a wide native distribution, from southeastern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and east of the Great Plains. A southern form, Juniperus virginiana var. silicicola, is native to coastal areas.
Our native junipers have interesting features. Juniperus virginiana has two different types of leaves (yes, needles are leaves). Juvenile leaves are needle-like while adult leaves are scale-like. Young trees will have only juvenile foliage, but some adult trees can have both types. The berry-like “fruits” are actually seed cones with fused, fleshy scales. Trees are usually dioecious so female trees bear the cones.
While junipers provide excellent cover and food for birds, many farmers fight them. They are quick to sprout up in pastures, and they are the host plant for the cedar apple rust fungus. I had a chance to spot one of the galls on a local juniper this year – it was an amazing organism.
Native junipers are more available in the nursery trade these days thanks to the introduction of cultivars like Juniperus virginiana ‘Grey Owl’ and ‘Burkii’. These plants make nice specimens and are certainly good for screening and wildlife shelter.
Like red berries? Hollies are the major group of native plants appreciated for bright red berries in December. There are a variety of species and forms to choose from – from dwarf shrubs to tall trees. American holly (Ilex opaca) is an evergreen tree as is yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). Yaupon holly also has dwarf forms (‘Nana’). Some of deciduous hollies such as winterberry (Ilex verticillata) are used for floral arrangements.
Other greenery that has been used through the years – but which I hope stays in the ground these days! – includes ground pine and ground cedar (Lycopodium spp.) and galax (Galax urceolata). Pine roping made from the branches of pine trees like loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) is very popular and still used today. And it wouldn’t be right if I failed to mention mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum). It is often found growing on oak limbs.
If you are in need of some holiday decorations or just like a bit of greenery growing in your yard in the winter, consider some of these plants. As native plants and evergreen plants, they provide benefits to birds in terms of food and shelter while they brighten your view.
Holiday note: Some of you may recognize the title of this post as the song title ‘Christmas in Dixie’ by the group Alabama. It is one of my favorites. You can listen to it on You Tube here.
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