The 25-foot holly tree in front of our house is heavily loaded with berries this year, easily the most in 15 years.
Many plants have done better than usual because there was no significant summer drought and rainfall since April has been three-quarters above the norm for the past half-century, according to Rutgers climate data. The American holly is apparently among them.
Another plant, a pineapple sage, is right below our holly. Scarlet, horn-shaped flowers still hang from its stems, and on Dec. 1 the latest-season hummingbird we have ever had - seemingly a rufous or Allen's - fed on those flowers and rested in the holly.
Other birds will enjoy the holly's bounty later.
If the winter is severe (no sign of that yet), a flock of American robins will run out of their preferred food and depend on this and other hollies to nourish them until spring. Most robins do not migrate south, but simply move deeper into woods for the winter.
More often, the robins do not need the holly berries and leave them to their better-dressed peers, the cedar waxwings. Typically, a large flock of these crested, finely feathered spring migrants with striking black masks and tails tastefully dipped in yellow will pause their northward flight to strip the holly of its berries.
That's fine with me. The longer our holly serves as a brilliant red-and-green natural holiday decoration, the better.
With its berry bounty this year, the tree seems more deserving of its former name in this country, the Christmas holly.
The holly's very rare status as an evergreen with broad leaves, instead of needles, provides the deep, rich green associated with the holidays. With the cheerful red fruits in abundance, the effect is as good as any wreath or spray we could have put together.
Such natural decoration is far less popular than it was a couple of generations ago. Aesthetically, some will lament that, but hollies have benefited greatly from our shift to manufactured lights and decorations.
Arborists and naturalists in the past century complained of the widespread holly poaching that supplied the boughs for decorations, but wiped out the slow-growing trees from areas with lots of people.
Southern New Jersey, with fewer people and suitably sandy soil made acidic by lots of oak trees, kept its wealth of holly trees.
The most famous, the estimated 300-year-old Shoemaker holly, caused the Garden State Parkway to be rerouted around it. Look for it in the rest area in Upper Township.
I especially like a pair of hollies in the median strip on the parkway a few miles north of the Somers Point toll plaza. The female and male (berryless) trees seem to be embracing.
For dramatic size, try the several hollies more than 50 feet tall in the seldom visited Cove Avenue Park in Northfield.
Or just enjoy the many American hollies spread across the region and surely in a woods near you.
Ours is putting on such a berry show this year, I might try to get away with not putting up the Christmas lights.
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