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A Glimpse of Nature - Inkberry

If you close your eyes and picture evergreens, I suspect that your mind’s eye will recall something like this...



...pyramidal trees with needles.  The dwarf Alberta spruce that was highlighted in a recent post exemplifies this form, one that is typical of coniferous trees. Not all evergreens look like this: some have flat, leathery leaves. In Massachusetts, a number of broadleaved evergreen shrubs brighten the landscape, especially in garden settings.  Evergreen rhododendrons, for example, bear large leathery leaves year round.

Rhododendron Near Queset House Driveway


In Queset Garden, a less-familiar broadleaf evergreen plays a major role in defining the structure of the garden:  the inkberry, Ilex glabra.

Inkberry at Queset Garden

There are no less than 48 individual specimens of this species in the garden – a bank of them at the front entrance:

and another row at the rear:


Inkberry is a rounded shrub with many glossy, dark green leaves.  It is native to America’s eastern coastal plain where it prefers acid soil and moist-to-wet conditions.  According to the U.S. Forest Service, the species is flood tolerant, occurring “in areas subject to alternating seasons of flooding and droughty conditions.”  I find it at the edges of vernal pools, ponds, and wooded swamps.

This species prefers full sun.  It can tolerate partial shade but will become “leggy,” losing the leaves on its lower branches.

Sunny Location  Under a Shade Tree

This plain, but elegant, shrub is actually a holly, though its family relationship may not be readily apparent.  Unlike the American holly or the hybrid ‘Meserve’ hollies, inkberry lacks spines on its leaves.  Instead, there are just a few teeth at the leaf tips.  

American Holly  Inkberry


Similarly, inkberry fruits are far from splashy.  The ¼ inch black drupes (fruits with a single pit) aren’t very noticeable except to hungry birds.



Despite these differences, inkberry shares some observable qualities with its spiny cousins.  All hollies are dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are on separate plants.  This might explain why the holly bush in your yard never bears fruit:  it might be a male plant, or a female that is too distant to be pollinated.  Bees pollinate hollies; hence, successful pollination depends on how far a bee must travel between plants.  The flowers they seek are inconspicuous by human standards but valuable to the bees and to beekeepers.  According to North Carolina State University, nectar from inkberry produces a “highly-rated honey.” Beekeepers in the Southeastern U.S. take advantage of this opportunity by releasing their bees during the inkberry’s flowering period.

If there are any inkberry shrubs or other holly species in your neighborhood, notice whether or not they have “berries” and when those fruits are ultimately eaten by birds.  Next spring, choose a plant to observe during its blossoming, watch for pollinators, and witness the fruits’ development.  A lot happens when we’re not looking!

As evidenced at Queset Garden, inkberry is now a popular landscape plant.  Here are a few things to keep in mind if you wish to add it to your garden.  First, the species grows slowly to a height of 8 feet, though cultivars such as ‘Shamrock’ are more compact.  What’s more, this shrub can be easily pruned to maintain its height and shape – with shears, or preferably, by hand pruning.  The pliability of this small-leaved shrub makes it an option for hedging and in formal gardens.  Indeed, Carolyn Summers book, 

Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East, suggests ways that inkberry can replace some non-native species, such as boxwood or wintergreen barberry, that have less wildlife value here in New England.

Another option is to capitalize on some of this evergreen’s wild habits.  If the plant tends to get leggy, then allow it to arch over an attractive groundcover.  Similarly, if space permits, make the most of inkberry’s capacity to form colonies.  As a stoloniferous shrub, inkberry spreads out from the parent plant through “root suckers.”  UConn’s Plant Database states that the species is “typically found in large suckering colonies in swamps and wet areas.”  If you have suitable damp ground, let a few inkberry plants do the work of vegetating the space.  Renowned horticulturist, Michael Dirr calls inkberry “One of the great plants for massing – trouble-free and beautiful.”


Inkberry “Parent” with Root Suckers

As long as its basic needs for water, sun, and acidity are met, inkberry is a hardy evergreen that looks great in winter.  No room at your house?  Come visit the collection at Queset Garden.



At the Library

Native Trees, Shrubs & Vines

by William Cullina

Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East  

by Carolyn Summers

[Available through Commonwealth Catalog]



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