A yaupon is an evergreen in the holly family. This native of the Southeastern United States reaches a height at maturity between 15 and 25 feet (4.6 and 7.6 meters), with an equally wide spread. The yaupon holly retains its dark green leaves year-round. Its leaves average 0.5 inch (1.3 centimeters) in length and display serrated edges. An attractive plant in the landscape, the yaupon holly also has medicinal properties.
This evergreen can tolerate a wide range of conditions. It can tolerate drought and also does well in swampy areas. Yaupon can grow in either sun or shade. It makes a fast-growing, attractive hedge that offers privacy year-round. Some people trim the bottom of this holly to highlight the interesting shapes formed by its many branches. It can be trained into the shape of a small tree or maintained as a shrub.
Yaupon is an understory plant with dense cover that provides habitat for wildlife. It produces white flowers in the spring that are small and not ornamental. When the flowers stop blooming, red berries appear and remain on the plant throughout the cold season.
These berries attract several species of birds, including robins, bluebirds, and cedar waxwings. Birds that feed on the berries are largely responsible for its propagation. These migratory birds spread the berries in both directions, and the pits inside the fruit are able to take root in different types of soil. Raccoons, armadillos, squirrels, and other wildlife also eat the berries, but the fruit isn’t fit for human consumption.
The yaupon holly is known by the scientific name Ilex vomitoria. This name is an indication of the side effect that eating the plant has on humans. Although there is no record of death or permanent harm, eating the fresh leaves or berries causes vomiting in humans. Some Native American tribes took advantage of this effect by making a decoction of yaupon and using it to purge the system. The leaves contain a high amount of caffeine and have also been dried and then boiled to create a tea that acts as a stimulant and intoxicant.
Yaupon has demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties that may inhibit colon cancer. Some believe that a gel made from this plant is beneficial as a topical treatment for a type of skin cancer known as T-cell lymphoma. Due to the plant’s toxicity, it should never be used medicinally without the guidance of a physician.