Saturday, December 20, 2008

Holly Dovewood

Alchornea ilicifolia
An internet search told me that no fewer than 17 Australian native plants have been given the common name “native holly”, despite being unrelated to the well-known Christmas decoration species, English holly Ilex aquifolium. We sometimes see English holly grown in gardens here, but it is disappointing as a Christmas decoration as it produces its berries in winter. The leaves and fruits are both toxic to children, and altogether it seems to be a plant that Australians could give the go-by.
There is a genuine Australian holly, Ilex arnhemensis, which grows in the Northern territory. As its leaves are very ordinary-looking, with no hint of the toothy edges which give the other “native hollies” their nicknames, it’s never been suggested as a native Christmas decoration.
Sprigs of our own local holly dovewoods, however, are one of the best substitutes for the “real thing”. The tough leathery leaves keep well, looking good for at least four days without water (though the fresh new leaves wilt sooner than that).
As garden plants they are more attractive than English holly, their new leaves ornamenting the plants with lovely shades of bronze. They lack the red fruits, though. The green seed-capsules (found on female plants only) ripen to brown.
When young, holly dovewood makes a good indoor plant. Like most of our dry rainforest plants it can be trained in the shape of a small tree, suitable for a suburban garden. It is best grown as a shrub, however, where it needs only occasional pruning to keep it as a dense, bird-sheltering screen. The leaves are mildly prickly, so it is also suitable as a border hedge where you might want to discourage intruders.
This is a drought-hardy plant which can be grown in full sun or bright shade. It does appreciate shelter from heavy frosts in its first few years. (It seems to survive them, but can look a bit bedraggled from frost-burn.)
The story is told that the plant has white latex, which could result in eye damage to careless humans. Being a cautious sort of person, I included a warning about it in my book (“Toowoomba Plants Vol 1") despite having being unable to find any sign of latex in my own plants. It can be difficult to get latex from some known latex-producing plants when they are drought affected, so I assumed that this was the reason. However, despite the good season I am still unable to find any sign of white latex, and now suspect that this is an example of the sort of factual error that does get made about of our local native plants, simply because they are little grown and poorly known. If any readers can contradict me, I would be delighted to hear from them!


Judy at TOC said...

I am so glad that I found your website..still reading..great stuff!

Patricia Gardner said...

Kind of you to say so, Judy.