The Holly family consists of two genera, Ilex and Nemopanthus, which together comprise about 400 species. Nemopanthus is represented by only one species, that one from North America. The Ilex are shrubs or trees, growing largely in the temperate and tropical areas of North and South America and Asia. The species are generally unisexual (dioecious) or essentially unisexual with some bisexual flowers on the same plant (polygamo-dioecious ). The leaves are simple and generally alternately, placed though a few species have oppositely placed leaves. They are frequently evergreen, though by no means always, and their leaf edges may or may not be toothed, and may or may not have spines. The leaves of evergreen species are generally persistent and leathery. The flowers have from 4-6 petals (most often 4) and usually as many stamens as petals (only rarely more). The ovary is placed above the attachment of the petals (superior) and the flowers are borne either solitarily or in groups of varying size. The fruit is generally globular (basically spherical) with varying numbers of seeds.
Of the two genera, Ilex (holly) by far is the more important of the two genera apiculturally. In fact, I have as of this time not found the genus Nemopanthus mentioned in the apicultural literature. This seems a little strange to me, given that the single species of the genus, Nemopanthus mucronatus (mountain holly or catberry) is indigenous to North America, and so many other North American members of the same family are such
prodigious nectar producers. Perhaps some of my readers have information relative to this issue. I’d certainly like to hear about it. Even the hollies, with their prodigious nectar production, seem to be underappreciated. With the exception of Ilex glabra, most members of the genus receive little more space in the American honey plant literature than to be mentioned as a group that produces nectar. To me, they seem to be one of the underappreciated groups of bee forage.
Besides honey production, the Ilex have at least one other interesting use in different parts of the world. The fruit and leaves of at least some of the species contain mixtures of caffeine, caffeine-like alkaloids, and some glycosides. The Indians of the southeastern U.S. made a caffeinated tea from the leaves of Ilex vomitoria (yaupon holly), and Mate, one of the favorite drinks of South America, is made from the leaves of Ilex paraguariensis, which is indigenous to Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The drink contains caffeine and an alkaloid known as mateine which is mildly stimulating, but is said not to produce nervousness or sleeplessness.
For those really interested in hollies, I recommend the definitive book on the subject by F. C. Galle. It’s the holly bible!
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