Ilex glabra with bee
||Eastern and Southeastern U. S. and perhaps as far north along the coast as Nova Scotia.
||Plant description: Gallberry is a upright evergreen bush that has a tendency to sucker and form colonies. It usually falls into a height range of 6-8 ft, but occasionally grows to 10 ft. The leaves are flat and leathery and glossy green above. They range in length from 1 to 2.5 inches and are frequently sparingly toothed on the end opposite their stem.
The species is unisexual (dioecious) with white flowers with 5 to 8 (usually 6) petals. They are borne in small clusters (males uaually 3-7 flowers, females usually 2-3 flowers) on a common stalk that arises from the base of new leaves. Under favorable conditions, the species is a prolific flower producer.
The fruit is generally black and ranges in size from about 0.25 inches to 0.37 inches in diameter. Plants with white fruits are also known but are rare in the wild. Often the fruits stay on the plant through the winter until the next fruiting season, which is the reason one of the species’ common names is winterberry. The fruits are very bitter and it is perhaps for this reason that they provide food for birds and other animals over a long period. Interestingly Morton considers the fruits to be toxic.
||In addition to the U.S. distribution, the species also occurs in Nova Scotia. Arnold provides one of the more complete descriptions of the plant’s native habitat as: “damp depressions of flatwoods, flood plains of rivers, margins of ponds and lakes, bay heads and roadside ditches”. To this I would add that the plant prefers acid soils. Dirr considers the species to be a zone 4 to 9 species. This is not to say that the species is a perfect evergreen in its more northern ranges. My plants “winter burn” badly nearly every winter in the Lansing, MI area. Dirr suggests the winter burn temperature range is roughly -15 to -20o F.
||Both Arnold and Sanford[1 &15] agree that the species blooms in Florida during March, April and May. Dirr states that it blooms in late May in Athens, GA. Fernald seems to suggest that it also blooms in May in Nova Scotia.
||To indicate the importance of gallberry as a honey plant in the Southeast, I think I can do no better than quote from a 1907 article that appeared in Gleaning in Bee Culture written by a Georgia beekeeper named J. J. Wilder.
“As a honey-plant perhaps it has no equal in the Southeast. We have never failed to get a surplus from it, even during the most unfavorable weather conditions. It begins to bloom the first of May (settled weather here then), and continues for 24 to 28 days. During this time bees disregard other bloom, working it up to about 8 o’clock for pollen, then the flow comes on for the remainder of the day.......there can be no greater sight in all beedom than to be in the midst of acres of this solid mass of blooms, 4 to 5 feet deep, and see the bees tumbling over the blossoms, loading up and doing but little flying.....It has been said that it was impossible to overstock a good gallberry location. We do not know that this statement is true; but we never heard of one being overstocked. We have had bees in a location where there were 302 colonies, with about the same result as with 100 colonies.....The gallberry should be put in the list of the best honey-plants of the United States.”
Arnold states that gallberry produces one of the largest commercial honey crops in the state of Florida.
“It is a reliable nectar source, and is considered one of the finest in Florida. Too much rain during the blooming period or dryness.” prior to blooming, however, will result in less nectar production.”
Oertel, as a result of his extensive questionnaire survey, records it as of at least some importance in nine states from the area of Delaware to Virginia south to Florida and Texas. From their questionnaires Ayers and Harman found it to be very important in MS, AL, FL and GA and to be of some importance in SC and NC.
||The Wilder article quoted above provides the information that Gallberry never provides excessive yields and that their largest yield was 147 lbs per hive. Lovell, However, provides the information that up to 300 lbs of gallberry honey has been stored by a single hive, but that the usual yields are in the 30 to 50 lbs per hive range.
||Wilder states that gallberry honey is a light amber color, has a heavy body, a very mild taste, and is highly flavored. Crane et al. provide data that the Pfund value is 17-42 mm (white to extra light amber).
Lovell has this to say about the flavor of gallberry honey,
“Pure gallberry has nearly the flavor of white clover honey mixed with that from basswood; but it differs from this blend in that it has a slightly tart reaction ten to fifteen seconds after it has been tasted. Its flavor is often injured by an admixture of honey from black titi (Cliftonia monophylla), which is abundant in the swamps and blooms a little earlier.”
The honey is apparently so liked that it rarely gets out of the southeast.
Another of gallberry’s positive characteristics is that it is slow to crystallize. Wilder states, “We have raised tons of this honey, and have never seen a pound of the pure article, well ripened, that granulated.”
Crane et al. provide the following sugar composition data:
||The species provides pollen.
||This would seem to be an excellent plant for beekeepers who want to establish a honey bee garden and have a bit of low pH, wet soil that could be used for that purpose. The species is apparently quite shade tolerant, but Dirrstates that it is best in full sun. It apparently expands over recently cleared appropriate sites quite rapidly, and Lovell states that the plant begins to bloom in its second year. From my experience with this species, I doubt very much that it will produce flowers from seed in two years. In my opinion, Lovell was most likely referring to plants that were either cut or burned off during clearing, both procedures that would leave mature root systems that could send up rapidly growing sucker shoots.
A number of cultivars are commercially available. Most (maybe all) of these cultivars are unisexual and in order to produce fruits, male and female plants will be needed, but it frequently isn’t clear when you purchase a plant what sex it will be. Often the vendor has no idea either.
Lovell reports, apparently from personal communications with J. J. Wilder (see above) that Wilder managed his gallberry production by burning parts of the gallberry area every two to three years from whence the species comes back in great profusion. That was years ago, and the practice might not be looked upon with great favor today. This causes me to wonder if alternatively it could be managed by mowing much as low bush blueberry is now frequently managed (see this column November 2005).
Wilder makes the interesting observation that few bumblebees or butterflies seem to be attracted to gallberry and that it seems to be attractive mainly to solitary bees and honey bees.
In the past the fruits of gallberry were sometimes used for making a substitute for
ink, hence one of the common names, inkberry.
||1. Arnold, L. E. . 1954. Some honey plants of Florida. University of Florida Agricultural Experiment Stations Bulletin 548. University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.
2. Ayers, G. S. and J. R. Harman. 1992. Bee Forage of North America and the Potential for Planting for Bees. In The Hive and the Honey Bee (J. M. Graham, Ed.), Dadant and Sons. Hamilton, IL.
3. Billington, C. 1977. Shrubs of Michigan. Cranbrook Institute of Science Bulletin 20. (2nd Edition). Cranbrook Institute of Science. Bloomfield Hills, MI.
4. Crane, E., P. Walker and R. Day. 1984. Directory of Important World Honey Sources. International Bee Research Association. London.
5. Dirr, M. A. 1998. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. Stipes Publishing L.L.C. Champaign, IL.
6. Fernald, M. L. 1970. Gray's Manual of Botany (8th edition). D. Van Nostrand Company. New York.
7. Galle, F. C. 1997, The Hollies--The Genus Ilex. Timber Press in association with the Holly Society of America Inc. Portland, OR.
8. Lovell, H. B. 1966. Honey Plants Manual. A Practical Field Handbook for Identifying Honey Flora. A. I. Root Co. Medina, OH.
9. Lovell, J. 1926. Honey Plants of North America. A. I. Root Co. Medina, OH.
10. Morton Arboretum Staff. 1990. Woody Plants of The Morton Arboretum. The Morton Arboretum. Lisle, IL.
11. Morton, J. A. 1964. Honeybee plants of South Florida. Proceedings, Florida State Horicultural Society 77:415-436.
12. Oertel, E. 1939. Honey and Pollen Plants of the United States (U. S. D. A. Circular 554) U. S. Government Printing Office. Washington D. C.
13. Pellett, F. C. 1978. American Honey Plants. Dadant and Sons, Hamilton, IL.
14. Sanborn, C. E. and E. E. Scholl. 1908. Texas Honey Plants. Texas Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 102. Texas Agricultural Experiment Stations, College Station, Texas.
15. Sanford, M. T. Florida Bee Botany Florida Cooperative Extension Service/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Circular 686. University of Gainesville, FL
16. USDA, NRCS. The PLANTS Database, Version 3.5 (http://plants.usda.gov). National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA
17. Wilder, J. J. 1907. The Gallberry as a honey-plant. Gleanings in Bee Culture 36:1200-1211.