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Wednesday, 09 January 2008 00:00

In living colour

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Cedar waxwings and American holly are with us year round. The waxwings wander around a lot in extended family groups, but they can be spotted in any season here in the Smokies region. Holly trees don’t wander around, of course, but they are evergreen and — unlike deciduous trees — present the same general appearance all of the time. But waxwings and holly don’t really — in my opinion — come into their own until winter. The birds are so named because sexually mature males and females display a waxy-like red spot on each wing that juveniles lack. The first part of their common name indicates their fondness for the fruits that cedar trees bear.

Here in the southern mountains, however, there are few true cedars. The tree we call red cedar is, in fact, a juniper. In this region, insects are their primary food sources during the warmer months. Then, in late fall and winter, they switch over mostly to fruits.

I’ve observed waxwings devouring mountain ash and witch-hobble in the highest elevations along the Blue Ridge Parkway. In lower elevation woodlands, fields, and gardens, they feed upon dogwood, pokeweed, grape, apples and similar fare. They seem to be inordinately fond of holly berries. If you have a female holly tree that’s displaying lots of fruit, sooner or later a flock of waxwings will show up. They’ll strip it in a day or two and then move as a group onto the next feast down the street or in the next county.

Watch how the main flock will congregate in a nearby bare-limbed deciduous tree so that individuals can shuttle back and forth a few at a time to the food source. Maybe they feel more protected having most of the flock on the lookout for predators, while just a few birds feed at any given time within the leafy confines of the holly.

The ongoing custom of employing evergreen plants for decorative purposes during the winter season is one of considerable antiquity, apparently originating in pre-Christian ceremonies celebrating the winter solstice. These are variously described as a survival of the licentious Roman Saturnalia or of the old Teutonic practice of festooning the interior of dwellings with evergreens as a way of providing a refuge for benevolent sylvan spirits.

Our immediate ancestors — not for the most part inclined toward unrestrained revels or a belief in woodland spirits — exchanged holly’s bright fruits and shiny leaves as tokens of friendship. These sprigs cheered up homes at a time of the year when daylight was at its shortest.

For me, one of the most exhilarating emblems of the winter season is encountered when suddenly, in an otherwise bare and gloomy setting, I happen upon an American holly tree decorated with glistening red fruit and a flock of waxwings.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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