With the recent snow, the glossy evergreen leaves of inkberry shrubs (Ilex glabra) are hard to miss against the white background. Inkberry leaves are alternate, simple, and elongate, with smooth edges except for one marginal tooth at either side of the apex of the leaf, resulting in a 3-pointed end. The shrubs average 1 to 2 meters tall, and sprout from thick, tuberous underground runners (stolons), which allow inkberry to spread vegetatively and form fairly dense colonies. Inkberry is native to the coastal plain of eastern North America and is commonly found in sandy soils in wooded swamps, pine barrens and forests. It is therefore unsurprisingly that it is also a relatively common understory species on Cape Cod.
Inkberry’s evergreen leaves stand out bright against the snow.
Inkberry’s leaves have smooth edges with the exception of a couple marginal teeth near the apex of the leaf.
As a member of the Ilex genus, inkberry is related to other local hollies, such as American holly (Ilex opaca) and common winterberry (Ilex verticillata). One somewhat humorous account from the Arnold Arboretum puts the public perception of these species into perspective, referring to inkberry as “a wallflower among the hollies, lurking in the shadows.” Inkberry is indeed easy to overlook because unlike most other hollies, inkberry not only produces jet black (rather than bright red) berries, but the fruits are also produced underneath the foliage and remain fairly obscure. They may not be as showy, but ecologically, inkberry shrubs are just as important as their other holly relatives. Their fruits are an important source of food for raccoon, coyote, and opossum when other options are scarce, and are also sought after by numerous species of birds. Although the berries are not edible for humans, the leaves can be dried and roasted and used to brew a dark tea-like drink. This practice gave rise to one of the plant’s other common names: Appalachian tea. Inkberry leaves, like those of various other holly species, contain a mixture of the caffeine-like alkaloids, as well as caffeine itself.