Right in Our Backyard: Skimmia, That Other Shiny, Red-Berried Evergreen

Holly has always been associated with the Christmas holiday season. In fact, green and red are probably considered the official colors of Christmas. And rightfully so.

RIGHT IN BACKYARD-1404
Published December 19, 2013 5:00 AM
4 min read

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RIGHT IN BACKYARD-1404Holly has always been associated with the Christmas holiday season. In fact, green and red are probably considered the official colors of Christmas. And rightfully so.

 

By Bill Lawyer  

 

RIGHT IN BACKYARD-1404Holly has always been associated with the Christmas holiday season. In fact, green and red are probably considered the official colors of Christmas. And rightfully so. 

 

While the use of holly in European decorative and religious practices goes back before Christianity, it was adopted as part of Christmas traditions as the religion spread north from the Mediterranean.

 

Holly has shiny bright green leaves and red berries that stand out in an otherwise bare and drab winter forest. And long ago, people learned that holly trees are either male or female. The female trees produce the berries, but they have to be pollinated by male trees. 

 

In my walking around Rye’s various neighborhoods of Rye in the winter months, I have noticed many plants that I assumed were hollies, due to their green leaves and red berries. 

 

But in taking a closer look, I realized that while the berries were like holly berries, the leaves were not. The leaves of holly are glossy, with a spiny toothed, or serrated leaf margin. The plants I saw had lance-like, smooth-leaf margins – no prickles!

 

I also noted that these plants were either small bushes or shrubs – in some cases people have planted them as property borders, and they’ve grown to a height of about six feet. 

 

That’s as far as I went in thinking about the plants, until one day last year when my wife brought home one of the plants from a nursery in Larchmont to brighten up our backyard rock garden in winter. Not only did the plant have shiny leaves and bright red berries, but, by spring, it boasted bunches of fragrant, creamy white flowers. 

 

So I decided to investigate this interesting shrub more closely. From the plastic ID and Care card that came with the plant, I learned it was a Skimmia japonica. And not only that, but we had actually gotten two plants in one pot – a male and a female. That’s because, like the hollies, you need both sexes in order to get the berries. 

 

As the name of the plant suggests, the plants are native to Japan. Skimmia is a Latinization of the Japanese name, shikimi. 

 

How these plants, native to Japan, arrived in the United States is a fascinating story, which can only be touched on here. A young Scottish botanist named Robert Fortune was hired by the London Horticultural Society in 1842 to travel to India, China, and Japan to bring back specimens of plants not found in England. 

 

Through the use of disguise and other trickery Fortune was able to discover and bring back hundreds of specimens, using mini-greenhouses designed by Nathaniel Ward to keep the plants from dying on their sea voyage back to England. Among those that successfully made the journey in 1850 was Skimmia japonica. 

 

From England these plants eventually were brought to the United States, where they have been cultivated and husbanded into a wide range of varieties, suitable for many different gardening purposes, from low bushes to much taller shrubs. One reason the flowers smell so fragrant is that skimmia belongs to the citrus family, although no part of the plant is edible. 

 

The fact that holly and skimmia are so similar looking is an example of what scientists call convergent evolution. The “ancestors” of holly and skimmia evolved into different families of plants filling similar niches. Perhaps this process started back when all the earth’s landmasses were together in one super-continent.

 

I could go on an on about skimmia. One of the interesting things I read but didn’t delve further into is a report by an ethno-botanist that in northern Pakistan they burn skimmia leaves to ward off evil spirits.

 

On a more relevant issue for our area is that some people take a hard line against the use of any non-native plants in our gardens. People should remember, however, that in the greater scheme of things all plants in Rye came from somewhere else. Where Rye now exists was under a huge sheet of glacial ice just 12,000 years ago. 

 

The main question regarding any plant is how it “gets along” with its environment, i.e. is it invasive? The Cornell Cooperative Extension lists skimmia as a non-invasive alternative to planting winter-creeper euonymus. 

 

If you wanted another good reason to plant skimmia, Al Krautter of Scardale’s Sprainbrook Nursery lists it at No. 6 on his top 25 deer-resistant plants.

 

So, get out on a clear winter day and enjoy a guilt-free look at those cheery red skimmia berries with shiny green leaves – right in our backyards. 

 

 

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