Sometimes, It Is the Berries

Possumhaw ~ San Bernard Wildlife Refuge

Like other slang phrases from the 1920s — invoking such fancies as bees’ knees, or cats in pajamas — I grew up hearing my parents and their friends commend something they considered especially fine by saying, “It’s the berries.” 

The expression sounds dated today, but the colors adorning our late winter landscape truly are ‘the berries’ in every sense of the word. As leaves fall and berry-laden branches of Possumhaw (Ilex decidua) and Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) become increasingly visible, their variety makes the wait for spring wildflowers more enjoyable.

Red predominates in both of these members of the holly family, but where eye-catching yellow and orange appear, they demand attention.

Yaupon ~ Artist Boat, Galveston Island
Possumhaw ~ Brazoria County Road 203


Comments always are welcome.

92 thoughts on “Sometimes, It Is the Berries

    1. Even on a gloomy day, these berries have a certain glow. Because a variety of birds and other creatures like raccoons and possums eat them, finding a tree with a full complement of berries isn’t always easy. I felt very lucky to find the orange ones.

    1. ‘The cat’s pajamas’ and ‘the bees’ knees’ still are around; in fact, there’s a local honey producer who uses bees’ knees as an advertising slogan. On the other hand, I can’t remember the last time I heard “It’s the berries.” Even my mother stopped using the expression in her latter years. That said, these berries are the berries; their color is so pleasing.

  1. The glow of the berries is really lovely, particularly the yellow ones. Here a similar phrase would have been ‘It’s the cat’s whiskers’, but I haven’t heard it for years.

    1. The red ones often are used for Christmas decorations, and they’re quite common. I’ve seen the orange before, but never such a nice collection of them. I wonder if the yellow and orange are less tasty than the red, or less recognizable to the birds. More unanswerable questions!

      I can’t remember ever hearing an expression involving a cat’s whiskers. After I moved to Texas, I did learn ‘finer than frog hair.’

      1. The phrase about the berries I’ve never heard but the cat’s whiskers one is common here. ‘Finer than frog hair’ is hilarious and I’ve definitely never heard that! Bees knees and cat’s pajamas.. yes to both. And Robert’s crackerjack, yes to that too!

      2. I’ve heard that some other berries are less attractive to birds if they’re yellow or orange – rowan for example. I suppose that the birds reckon they’re likely to be less ripe.

  2. The berries really do attract wildlife. I have wild Yaupon and other hollies that the birds love. There have been some Robins picking at the berries all winter, but over the weekend a big flock of Cedar Waxwings arrived and finished them off.

    1. Those Waxwings are like avian vacuum cleaners. I once watched a flock take every fruit off a collection of palm trees in two or three days. I didn’t realize you have robins through the winter; I’m envious! I do think a robin might have stopped at my feeder this morning, but it’s still so dark and gloomy down here all I could see is the shape. I’m going to put out some dried mealworms and see if I can tempt it back.

    1. It certainly is a typical late winter/early spring day here in Texas. The Panhandle is around freezing with inches of snow, while we’re sitting in the mid-sixties with tornado warnings popping up. But the grass is greening and the squirrels are becoming amorous, so it won’t be long before we trade our colored berries for wildflowers.

  3. I’ve heard those expressions many times. Used them myself. The berries are always eye catching when we’re out walking. They are a ‘sight for sore eyes’.

    1. While the berries are green and the leaves still thick, I often don’t think about either of the trees, but once the branches are bare and the color can shine, they’re beautiful. I’m glad they’re part of your world, too. On the other hand, my favorite Iowa berry is the native bittersweet. I don’t know if it’s around any more, but we used to go out in the fall and collect it from the fencelines and railroad tracks.

    1. It goes back to the early 1900s. Like all idioms, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint an original source, but I thought this was interesting: “J.E. Lighter, Random House Dictionary of Historical Slang (1994) reports that the expression from which “the berries” arose was “all to the berries.” ‘The berries, i.e., that which is attractive or pleasing or the height of excellence, was cited in the 1908 McGaffney book, The Sorrows of a Show Girl: A Story of the Great “White Way. One character says to another, “Say, that [girl]…is all to the berries, ain’t she?”

      I found the expression in a couple of newspaper and journal articles from the 1920s, too. Interesting. The berries, however, can be identified!

  4. I’ve heard “It’s the cat’s meow,” but I like Ann’s suggestion of whiskers better. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard “It’s the berries.” Once in a great while, the oldsters at home will describe something as “crackerjack,” I’m guessing that’s a similar vintage.

    1. I’ll bet ‘crackerjack’ is from the same era, because I’ve also heard it from older relatives. What’s really interesting is that male relatives were given to using ‘crackerjack,’ while it was the women in our family who’d call something ‘the berries.’

      A little looking reminded me that the 1908 Tin Pan Alley song”Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” the unofficial anthem of North American baseball, contains the word(s) in its lyrics:
      “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
      I don’t care if I never get back.”

      The popcorn treat called Cracker Jack first was sold at the first Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and patented in 1896, but in the history of the company, it notes that ‘cracker jack’ as a term that referred to anything of high quality already was in use. So, it seems that ‘crackerjack’ predated ‘the berries’ — at least, in this country.

      1. That’s interesting, Wow, that’s like an advertising company’s dream, to get a “product placement” in a song they’re still singing over a century later!
        Then there’s “cracker box” to mean flimsy or small, whether it’s a house or ballpark. I’ve watched the video for that George Harrison song “Crackerbox Palace,” which is pretty trippy, the wiki article said he heard the phrase and started calling his own house that.

        1. I’d never heard of the song, so I just clicked over to watch the video. ‘Trippy,’ indeed. That has to be the weirdest thing I’ve seen in some time. On the other hand, it was made in 1976, and those could be some strange days. I did see that Monty Python’s Eric Idle produced the video; that explains a lot.

    1. Like you, I’m a lover of color. When I was young, I went through a phase of all white walls and black and white photos, but then I realized I no longer enjoyed it. I painted the walls and hung different photos — and now I take some of the same sort of photos. These berries suit me just fine!

  5. ‘It’s the berries’ was new to me, Linda. But I’m just a youngster. Bees knees is equally obscure. I never even heard it from my mother who lived through the flapper era. Now ‘cat’s pajamas,’ I know. We had red berries in profusion that grew on a small tree/large bush that hovered above where we parked our cars. The birds that flocked in to strip the limbs, it was definitely the berries. The berries were slightly fermented and it made the birds tipsy. A great time was had by all, except our cars. At the first sign of the invasion we moved them. Otherwise, target! –Curt

    1. There’s nothing more fun than watching an inebriated bird or squirrel. Here’s one of my favorites. That poor creature. We used to watch robins doing the same thing.

      I always know when real spring/early summer has arrived, because of the purple splotches I find on my boats. Bird-processed mulberries and white fiberglass don’t combine well!

  6. I never heard that expression — perhaps it was a regional thing? Anyway, the berries are lovely. Do you know if birds feed on them, or if they’re poisonous?

    1. I think it’s generational more than regional. “It’s the berries” fits right in with “Twenty-three skiddoo” and “Oh, you kid.” It’s the Flapper era; it would be interesting to go back through F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories and see how many expressions like that show up.

      Birds do eat them, along with animals like raccoons and possums. The berries of both plants are toxic for humans, but the yaupon leaves make a great tea. In fact, it’s the only naturally caffeinated native plant in this country. It’s actually pretty good. Even though I’m more a coffee drinker than a tea drinker, I’ll sometimes have a cup of yaupon tea.

    1. I thought this tree’s orange berries were some of the prettiest I’ve seen. The color varies from tree to tree and season to season, of course, but this untended tree by the side of the road did well. Being a native certainly was a factor, but growing between the road and a ditch probably helped; its roots could have found some convenient water.

    1. Win-win is right. I’m especially fond of the possumhaw, but it’s been hard finding one with a full complement of berries this year. The orange one was a real treat!

  7. Those berries always look like a bead made of some gemstone rock like cinabar or onyx with hole drilled through and a pin-head wire put through them, like you make jewelry. They remind me of the pyracantha in my mom’s yard. Can birds eat Ilex vomitoria? I wonder because humans can’t. As the name implies, it induces vomiting.

    1. Occasionally, the berries also have reminded me of pop-beads. Remember them? They weren’t as classy as your gemstone beads, but they certainly were fun to play with. The similarity to pyracantha’s striking; there was a huge pyracantha shrub near my friend’s house in the hill country, but the highway department dispatched it a couple of years ago.

      Birds can eat berries from both shrubs; it doesn’t bother them at all. And although we can’t eat the berries, the leaves from yaupon make a lovely tea. Have you ever tried it? Here’s a link to a good Texas source whose product I’ve tried and liked.

      By the way — I read that you set a daily snow record today: over seven inches! There are some great photos from the area.

    1. At least they hadn’t found these. I can’t tell you how many half-bare or nearly bare branches I found. I just decided to show the berries rather than the twigs!

  8. Really lovely captures of luscious berries! I have several yaupon hollies that I found in my garden as seedlings that are growing up quite nicely. Alas, I think they’re male and won’t produce berries. But my rough-leaf dogwoods had great berries in the fall and the mockingbirds were crazy over them!

    1. I had to look up your dogwood. The flowers seem familiar, but I could be confusing them with something else. I’ll have to watch for them this spring. The berries are interesting, and well worth having if they tempt the mockingbirds. Right now, I’m beginning to see a few mockers; I put out some dried mealworms, and it wasn’t long before they showed up. My little yellow-rumped warbler has decided this is home; I see it every day now, coming to the feeder or to get a drink. I’m not sure why it’s by itself. I thought they traveled in flocks. Maybe it’s sneaking off from its flock to avoid letting them know where the goodies are.

      1. My original was given to me by an Austin garden blogger and these little trees will colonize out–and it has! It didn’t do much for the the first 5-6 years (it was in the shadow of a large and old Tacoma stans), but I removed the Tacoma stans, the tree really “blossomed”! I’ve moved a couple of the offshoots and given away a few more. I also purchased another (before the first produced so many others). I really like this little tree, it’s just a perfect smallish size for an urban landscape that isn’t full sun: it has lovely, pollinator-favorite blooms in spring, is tough during summer’s heat and drought, and the foliage is subtle, but attractive when it changes in autumn.

  9. Your images of the berries are lovely. I’ve never heard of the expression “It’s the berries” in Australia, but the other 2 (expressions) are common.
    This might be because we don’t get a lot of berry sightings in the wild?
    But to be honest, I don’t get the opportunity to walk in the country or mountains these days.

    1. I did a little more poking around, and found the expression about something being the berries in a Punch cartoon in England in the late 1800s. It seems to me that it might be rooted in England, and have more to do with literary society than the natural world. There’s no way to know for certain, I suppose, but in one way or another it became one of my mother’s useful sayings.

      I wondered if you had any plants like this, and in fact there’s only one: Ilex arnhemensis. It’s the only species of holly native to Australia. It’s found in the tropical north of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. How about that! From what I can tell, the berries are a greenish white, and not so colorful as these.

      1. I’m used to the English Holly that my Mother used to grow and not familiar with our native holly. The Tasman Flax lily has a beautiful bright bluish-purple ‘berry-like’ season.
        I photographed some in a landscaped plot up on the main road a while ago. I don’t think I’d seen such vivid colour on this plant before.

          1. Thanks for the link, Linda. I’ve got several good photos of the Tasman Flax lily, but not sure that the images are all filed in my photo library. They’re more prevalent in my current home location than in any other Melbourne suburb I’ve lived in.
            I enjoyed reading about that plant and was surprised that you have them in the U.S.

  10. We had a big flock of robins here today and my guess is that they’ll have cleaned out the holly berries. Your berries are really beautiful. That yellow/orange glows. I went out in search of early flowers today and found some. Will be writing tomorrow, I hope.

    1. I’ve seen robins eating the berries of our Chinese Tallow and Chinaberry; other birds eat them, too, which is part of the reason they spread so enthusiastically and cause problems. I’ve never seen robins eating Ilex berries, but I rarely see robins at all. Wooded areas seem to be more attractive to them. It makes sense to me that you’d be finding flowers now that the robins have shown up. I’m eager to see them.

    1. I found some earlier references to the saying, including a Punch cartoon from the late 1800s, so I think it might have landed in the U.S. from England, and then took hold and became a common slang phrase here. My mother was born in 1918, which would have made her just the right age to pick up a slang phrase like this in school.

      1. I just tried putting the phrase into Ngram viewer. It shows a comparatively large usage 1800-1810 in English published books, then just a trickle up to the present day, but nothing in American English!

  11. Nature provides some bright color to lure migrating birds toward the buffet. Our mostly brown Florida landscape certainly benefits from berry-bearing plants and trees.

    You introduced me to a new (old) phrase. If I knew anyone older than me, I’d ask them about it.

    1. Oddly, I’ve never thought of your Florida landscape as being brown. In my mind, it’s always a more-or-less tropical green — even when it’s cold. I suppose that’s partly thanks to the tourism folks, who do a fine job of creating illusion everywhere they ply their trade. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate the contrast between a brown landscape and the bits of color that show up: a Cardinal does as well for that as a branch of berries.

      There’s another berry-interesting phrase that just this minute popped into my mind: “I’m your huckleberry.” I had no idea where it came from, so I went looking. It turns out to be a famous Doc Holliday line-with-a-history from the film Tombstone. Even though I’ve never seen the film, I somehow internalized the line. Its history is as vague and as interesting as “that’s the berries.”

  12. I have a friend who says that frequently! She uses it to mean a bit rowdy, but fun, as in a description of a shelter dog she’s walking. Before that, I’d never heard that phrase.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s heard the saying! It’s interesting that my mom used the phrase often, but my dad never did. Of course, dad was more given to puns than idioms, so there’s that. You should ask your friend where she came across the phrase, or when she started using it. It would be interesting to know — like finding the provenance of antique language.

    1. I’m surprised you haven’t come across it, given your wide-ranging reading and interest in theater. It’s earlier than the flapper era, and may have begun in England, but it certainly is fun. I did come across this flapper’s dictionary that’s really interesting. I noticed that ‘sugar’ was a word for money; that makes the phrase ‘sugar daddy’ more understandable!

  13. I’ve read the phrase “It’s the berries” in novels but have never heard anyone say it.

    That photo of the possumhaw would make a great jigsaw puzzle!

    1. Looking through an informal ‘flapper’s dictionary,’ I found another word my mom and dad used often: copacetic. It meant that things were fine: under control, or excellent. This article has some really interesting theories about when the word emerged, but not much certainty. I’ve thought so much about my great aunt Rilla’s malapropisms, I never thought much about the interesting words and phrases my parents used.

      Have you ever done jigsaw puzzles online? It’s kind of fun — here’s one site where I turned the possumhaw photo into a puzzle. If you want to give it a try, let me know and I can send you the photo. Or, you could use any photo you have on your computer.

  14. I haven’t heard anyone say “It’s the berries” in decades. I’d forgotten all about it, but I had an aunt who’d say it. When I read this post I immediately flashed to her. Thanks for the memory + beautiful photos.

    1. How great is that? I’m delighted to have brought your aunt to mind; words and phrases have the power to do that, even when decades have passed. I’d completely forgotten another word that both of my parents — and their friends — used: copacetic. When everything was copacetic, it was just rocking along, with no issues and no problems. Here’s to more copacetic, berry-filled days!

      1. My mother said “copacetic” too. She was a teacher and nothing pleased her more than a day at school that she could describe as copacetic. Another fun memory. Thanks.

  15. I’ve heard “the bees’ knees” and “cats’ pajamas” before (but not for quite a while), but I’ve never heard “it’s the berries.” Privately, my wife and I have one, “it’s the sauce”. Generally, it’s a compliment to an exceptionally good sauce in a meal, but also a gentle mockery of a statement a friend kept making at a dive club gathering a few years back. (Our potlucks are legendary, especially as many are campground based.) Maybe we’ll start a new saying?

    1. Well, there are ‘saucy girls’, and guys who ‘get sauced,’ so “it’s the sauce” could be a very useful phrase. While I was poking around in the etymology of sauce, I was surprised to read that ‘sass,’ meaning impudent or insolent, was a back-formation from ‘sassy,’ and ultimately was a colloquial pronunciation of ‘sauce.’ That’s another word I heard from time to time from my grandmother and her friends; they always were telling us kids not to “sass” our parents, or even other kids.

  16. Yep, “it’s the berries” was commonly said around our house. Dad grew up in East Texas, and mom in Connecticut, so not sure which of them contributed it to our family lexicon (or whether they both did). Only mom knew “bees knees”, and both knew “cat’s pajamas” (as well as “cat’s meow”). Sometimes I think language hops and skips across a population as readily as the plants sown by cooperative birds spring from the berries.

    1. I found that ‘Flapper sayings’ were spread in the 1920s by published lists of the most popular words as well as by books, films, and so on. From what I’ve read, the articles and lists were rather like today’s Urban Dictionary: a way for people to figure out what phrases like “Oh, you kid” meant. “It’s the berries” shows up on the lists as a created-in-the-20s phrase.

  17. Those yellow and orange ones really do stand out. I love how the yellow appear almost transluscent. “It’s the berries” is a new one to me, but I like it.

    1. It’s been fun to discover how many people grew up hearing the phrase, and how many never had heard of it. Language does change, and I’m sure that many of today’s slang phrases will be just as unfamiliar in another twenty or thirty years (or next Tuesday, given how fast things sometimes move these days). The yellow berries actually are a little more yellow than these, which have a touch of orange to them. I suppose it was a combination of the light and my camera, but I just couldn’t capture the purer yellow. No matter — they still shined!

  18. That phrase is new to me but I like it as much as I do “the bees’ knees”. The wild holly I see here is Winterberry and as in your picture the berries are bright red and don’t last long once a flock of locals discover the bush. I planted one in the yard this past summer so hopefully will see some hungry visitors in the coming years. I shared an image here from a roadside in New Salem. For some reason I wasn’t able to get as close as you did.

    1. It sure is easier to photograph on the side of a road! On the other hand, the combination of water and berries is beautiful. For some reason, ‘winterberry’ sounded familiar. I finally figured out I’ve seen bath products and candles that carry the name. Do the flowers have a scent, or is the use of ‘winterberry’ just a marketing ploy?

      1. It is easier and I’ve been doing a lot of that these days. I must be getting soft in my old age.

        I hope that you are faring okay with the cold weather Texas has been seeing. I know Steve in Austin has had a tough time of it. We’re due for seriously cold stuff this weekend with wind chills well below zero but at least we do have power which they do not.

        1. We’ve been cold and rainy for days, but only that: it never dipped below 39F or so here, so we haven’t experienced any of the icing that covered the central part of the state. It seems that some people have learned one of those hard lessons of life: leaving trees untrimmed for aesthetic reasons can have unexpected consequences when the ice arrives, just as leaving brush untrimmed and uncleared can bring problems during fire season.

          My favorite Austin meteorologist always provides some interesting facts, like this. I got a kick out of this, too. I don’t know what the equivalent in beagles would be.

          1. I’m glad that your area has not been as hard hit. Texas is so big that I imagine it has several weather zones. Steve lost at least one nice tree that he posted on Facebook. People don’t realize how those little snowflakes or ice crystals can add up to a lot of weight, especially when it’s wet snow and, of course, ice is frozen wetness so the same applies. And if you add strong winds to the mix a lot of damage can happen.

            Beagles and corgis are similar in weight so that tree could hold about 274 beagles as well.

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