Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 2/5/97

Those who have been down to the Eno River at West Point Park this winter have probably noticed the burst of bright red color protruding out from the middle of the river one hundred feet below the dam. The contrasting lustrous red berries on a small, river-gnarled tree in the midst of the gray winter backdrop is quite a spectacle. This is the fruit of the deciduous holly.

Besides the more familiar evergreen holly, with its prickly green leaves and red berries, there are four species of holly to be found in the Triangle that drop their leaves each winter. The particular one that is all aflame at West Point is what is commonly known as possumhaw, Ilex decidua being its Latin name.

This small tree grows to a height of twenty feet and frequents stream banks, flood plains and swamps of the Piedmont and upper coastal plain from Maryland south to Florida and west to Texas. The delightful appearance of possumhaw is another good reason not to abandon river walks and paddling expeditions during winter season.

Haw is possibly an old English word for fruit. Could it be that opossums have been observed feeding upon these juicy berries? But surely, the red berries are not primarily there for the opossum who can't even distinguish between colors.

More likely, these red berries exist to attract fruit-eating, winter birds such as robins or cedar waxwings.  They travel the river in foraging flocks during the winter and disperse the seeds through their digestive tracts. This particular plant on the Eno could easily be cleaned of its fruit in one brief landing from such a hungry flock.

But there are many more inidvidual possumhaw trees without red berries. Holly trees possessing fruit are the female trees only. The trees containing the male, pollen-producing flowers have no fruit to display. They are barren in the winter season and are difficult to distinguish from among the many other leafless and fruitless plants that line our river banks. So it is just the female holly trees that are decked out in red when it comes time for St. Valentine's Day!

IWe are accustomed to thinking of its cousin, the evergreen American holly, as the Christmas holly with its red and green Christmas colors. But when searching the Carolina Piedmont for a Valentine's Day plant, I find that possumhaw's passion red berries are nature's special gift to us for the season.

Our Valentine's Day was a nature festival from the beginning. The Roman festival Lupercalia, which fell on Feb. 15, honored Juno, the Roman goddess of women and marriage, and Pan, the god of nature. It was a lover's festival celebrated at a cave known as Lupercal near Rome. Our modern Valentine's Day symbol of the big red heart is representative of this ancient Lupercalia festival and Juno, the queen of heaven.

After the spread of Christianity, an attempt was made to repress this pagan festival through reinterpretation. Pope Gelasius changed the Lupercalia festival on Feb. 15 to St. Valentine's Day on the 14th in the year 496. Neither of the two martyrs in early Christian history known as St. Valentine had anything to do with the romantic sentiment or customs associated with the earlier nature and fertility festival.

Pan was the half-man, half-goat god of forests, pastures and fertility who, with Juno, was honored at Lupercalia. The father of American nature writing, Henry Thoreau, revealed his own passion in relation to this god:

"In my Pantheon, Pan still reigns in his pristine glory, with his ruddy face, his flowing beard, and his shaggy body, his pipe and his crook, his nymph Echo, and his chosen daughter Iambe; for the great god Pan is not dead, as was rumored. No god ever dies. Perhaps of all the gods of New England and of ancient Greece, I am most constant at his shrine.''

I also can still find Juno and Pan at the Eno River on Valentine's Day this year in the possumhaw tree. Its vibrant red berries remind us that love and passion can survive through the coldest and bleakest of wintry seasons. Fertility and new life can also be celebrated in our own special protected natural spots as was done at the cave on the Palatine Hill. No god ever dies . . .
Photo by Parker County Master Gardeners winter possumhaw tree