Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Ilex Buffet

The fauna show around these parts has been on winter hiatus, but a bountiful display of berries produced by yaupon trees along the fence line pulled in some regular visitors this February.
Table for two.  
Yaupon, or Ilex vomitoria, suffers a bit of a bad reputation as a result of confusion arising from its name.  According to various sources, indigenous people and early settlers used caffeine bearing young twigs and leaves off Ilex to brew a strong tea which would be consumed in mass quantities and then vomited back up, as part of ceremonial gatherings. Can't you just imagine the invitations?  "Come celebrate the harvest with our tribe!  We'll supply the tea and buckets, you just bring yourself (and a change of clothes)!".
Testing revealed it is not a chemical compound in the yaupon itself that causes vomiting.  Ritual ceremonies apparently included the ingestion of other substances or perhaps participants utilized a finger down the throat.  Either way, the "vomitoria" appellation stuck and has some folks still avoiding using these beautiful trees mistakenly thinking they are somehow protecting children and pets.

Which is a shame, because the berries are quite attractive, drawing in birds and mammals alike, especially after a series of freezes and thaws which theoretically alter their taste or texture in some fashion to make them even more desirable.  Each berry holds 4 nutlets, the protein source everybody is after, including these Eastern Fox squirrels, (Sciurus niger).  After some rather unscientific observation, it appears to me the squirrels mash the berries up in their paws and nibble the nutlets out.
Mature fox squirrels mate twice a year (young females only bear once annually) including a litter born in late January or February.   I'm not experienced enough to be able to determine the maturity or the sex of the two that have been feeding together for hours daily, but one of the two is significantly shyer than the other, retreating deep into the tree whenever I get too close.
That leads me to believe this is a female, while the handsome bolder squirrel who watches closely but rarely moves far from its selected seat at the table?  I am guessing this is her male consort.
Handsome, but he could use a napkin.
Whenever the squirrels take a break, a pair of Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) visits, to get their fair share.
Cardinals do not molt into duller winter plumage, so this male may be an adolescent who has not quite reached full color.  He has been regularly accompanied by a female, who like Ms. Squirrel, is also a bit warier of having her portrait made.
She's in there...keep looking.
Things have been relatively quiet around our spaces the past couple of months. Aside from the ever present deer, and a handful of white tailed dove that took full advantage one afternoon of newly exposed soil underneath a bird feeder, these guests at the yaupon buffet represent the totality of our regular recent wildlife sightings.

I'm eagerly looking forward to an easing up of our spells of freezing and near-freezing weather, as warmer days and nights will trigger an explosion of growth benefitting flora and fauna alike.  The wildlife visitor bureau assures me traffic will pick up in March, and from here forward fauna watching should become a daily pleasure again.

Thanks as always to Tina at My Gardener Says, for hosting Wildlife Wednesdays, a salute to the wonderful creatures who not only share but decorate our spaces with their colorful beings and behaviors.  Be sure to check out the other wildlife posts from all around as linked to in the comments section of Tina's post for March.  Happy Wildlife Wednesday everybody!


Tina said...

I love your "mundane" visitors and the photos that captured them for all of us to enjoy. And, your suggestion about what those invitations might have been like--laugh, laugh!!

That first photo with both squirrels is really good. I see squirrels crawl around on my Possumhaw, but they pass through its limbs quickly, just a snatch of berry and it's time to move on.

As always, thanks for your support and participation in Wildlife Wednesday!

TexasDeb said...

Thanks, Tina. I'm optimistic traffic will pick up around here as the weather warms, but I am trying to appreciate whoever shows up under the circumstances. New construction in our area has disrupted a lot of habitat previously left undisturbed for decades and it is my impression a lot of our regulars are under new pressures as populations scramble for new sites.

Shirley said...

The squirrels sure enjoy those berries and they just might be distracted from the bird feeder for a minute or two. I don't have many yaupons but I do love the look of those berries so might have to remedy that.

Cardinals are a special treat in the late winter season of limited wildlife viewing in the garden.

TexasDeb said...

Shirley: The yaupon had a stellar berrying year - they've been extra pretty. And, you're right of course, the more berries and fruiting trees I get going here the less the squirrels bother the bird feeders.

Not that anything has been showing up to bother much around here just lately. I'm grateful to be heading towards a more consistently productive and wildlife friendly time of year!

Anna said...

Those squirrels are so cute! And the berries are so luscious. My short list of berry bushes to plant for wildlife includes the yaupon. Thanks for sharing your photos.

TexasDeb said...

Anna: Thank you! I appreciate your comment.

If you do plant yaupon be sure to get a female plant for the berries (though most nurseries only sell females it is wise to ask). I'm betting you'll love the visitors these trees draw.

Debra said...

Where I grew up squirrels and chipmunks and the like never made it into our neighbourhood. They were wild creatures I saw on camping trips. So seeing them run around like they own the place just never gets old for me. Your photos show how adorable they can be. Live long and prosper little guys. (And the cardinals too naturally).

TexasDeb said...

Debra: Thanks for that reminder - what is ordinary in one place is quite extraordinary in another. We all need to keep our sense of wonder from getting blunted by familiarity.

Chipmunks seem exotic to me though when we lived in Utah we saw them everywhere we stopped to camp. Opportunistic little beggars...adorable nonetheless.

Deb, thanks as always for dropping by and commenting. I deeply appreciate it.

Kris Peterson said...

Squirrels are such determined creatures when they get their paws on a food source! It's nice to see them feeding on food provided by nature rather than stealing bird seed as they do in my garden. You got great pictures.

Anonymous said...

Great entertaining information on the Ilex vomitoria, its not a plant I have grown but looks like an excellent plant for wildlife. The behaviour of flashy males and gentle females are interesting to observe in Spring as they prepare for breeding. I really enjoyed your post and the photos are wonderful.

Anonymous said...

I like the wildlife version of the Yaupon feast, even if not as colorful as the bring-your-own-bucket / change of clothes the Native Americans did.

The cardinal is even better on green parts as the berries are elsewhere!

TexasDeb said...

Kris: I felt really motivated to try for good shots. I've spent quite some time with those marauding squirrels as they have been some of my only visible company outside lately. I have to say they've left the bird feeders alone for the most part since I switched to nyger seed. They aren't fond enough to go to the trouble when there is anything else around to eat.

TexasDeb said...

(gardening)Jules: Welcome and thanks for stopping to comment. I appreciate that.

It wasn't until I was editing the photos that I realized how stereotypically the different sexes were acting in my presence. (Reminded me a bit of my own children and how they would behave differently when I was in the room!)

TexasDeb said...

DHB: Thank you David, I'm glad you liked them. I don't have large vistas to capture so I'm usually on the lookout for these tender vignettes that set up.

As to the BYOB - I suppose certain groups of people engage in a somewhat similar ceremonial ritual weekend nights...hopefully skipping the throwing up parts.

Rebecca Newcomb said...

I knew the yaupons attract feathered friends, but had no idea they were all the rage with tree rats (aka squirrels) too! This plant is definitely at the top of my wishlist for new shrubs to add to the garden...evergreen, can take shade, and such a great wildlife plant - what's not to love? I love the pic of the squirrel with his dirtied berry paws - such a gluttonous little fella!

TexasDeb said...

Rebecca: The yaupon put on an especially heavy yield of berries this year and though I hadn't noticed squirrels sampling them previously there have been squirrels feeding on them just about every afternoon for the past few weeks. They have lots to eat around here (aside from the bird feeders) so they always have choices. This year they chose the yaupon.

If you get one yaupon you'll probably end up with more. They stay gorgeous when a lot of other trees are down for the count. We love 'em!

Donna@LivingFromHappiness said...

Deb I love all those berries and what a fascinating history of these shrubs/trees. Obviously the critters know a good thing when they taste it. It has been quiet here too as the cold and snow have kept so many critters hunkered down for almost a month.

TexasDeb said...

Donna: I've been watching the yaupons carefully as they are having a banner year for berries. I'd hoped to catch a flock of cedar waxwing migrating through (they've been here before to strip yaupon trees clean in a matter of minutes) but haven't seen any this year. The squirrels and cardinals are year round residents and I have to watch out not to take them for granted. They are every bit as wild and beautiful in their own way.

Laurin Lindsey said...

Great photos...and ode to the yaupon! I love yaupons of every variety. I have a big Pride of Houston yaupon holly in my back garden. The birds love it. The squirrels have not found it. That shot of the squirrel high in the tree is amazing. I have a friend that used to go dig up yaupons in the country side to plant in her garden. In designs I like to use dwarf yaupon holly instead of boxwoods to make little formal hedges!

TexasDeb said...

Laurin: Thank you - I had so much fun watching the squirrels I nearly forgot I wanted to get photos.

We have a couple of dwarf yaupon and The Hub loves them featured as neatly trimmed contrasts to the rather less clipped bushes and bedding all around. I was surprised at how densely they filled in and how long and well they hold a pruning. As much as I love them in a naturalistic setting, they are superb as formal elements. Yaupon - a tree for all seasons and reasons!

Laurin Lindsey said...

Perfect tag line "Yaupon a tree for all seasons and reasons" I may have to borrow that sometime. I just saw a new yaupon to me at the grower last week. Yaupon Holly, Ilex vomitoria 'Saratoga Gold' I am working on a blog of my tour thru Treesearch Farms and will have a picture of it.

Jason Ellis - Lost Pines Yaupon said...

Have you tried making tea from the leaves? It's delicious. There are a few companies in the US now bringing yaupon back. We're one of them :) It's not a complicated process if you want to give it a shot. Just pluck some leaves and roast. Just like with Camellia Sinensis it's all about how you process it. If you use a low temp in the over.. say 200 and don't go to long you will end up with something similar to green tea. Roasting them hotter at 325 till they turn dark brown will yield something more similar to black tea (though black tea is black from fermentation not roasting). Give it a shot, it's yum. Oh and in addition to caffeine it contains theobromine, the "pleasure molecule" of dark chocolate. It's also packed with antioxidants up there with blueberries and green tea.

TexasDeb said...

Jason - what a fascinating prospect. I have not made yaupon tea yet but I am definitely going to look into trying some. Thanks very much for dropping in!