Life in the Sunken Forest: American Holly

Holly with berries
The female American holly produces red berries.

Perhaps the most interesting and beautiful tree of the maritime forest is the American holly (Ilex opaca). It is an evergreen tree and retains its leaves year-round. These leaves are very pointy and waxy, which helps defend them from both animal browsers and the damaging salt carried by ocean breezes. Its berries, which turn red in early winter, are found only on female trees.

Holly forest understory

The hollies are the oldest known trees in the Sunken Forest, some having begun growing around the time of the American revolution. Holly is not found growing naturally much farther north of here, but on Fire Island the moderating effects of a maritime climate have enabled the tree to survive.

As you can see from this photo, the dense canopy formed by mature holly trees does not permit much sunlight to reach the forest floor, and this--combined with intensive browsing by white-tailed deer--has resulted in very few plants at ground level--the so-called understory.


Last updated: March 31, 2012

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