Standing there unobtrusively, in fact barely noticeable, it seems my winterberry patiently awaits the passing of summer. Although it is unfair to say that it is unnoticeable now, for its lustrous deep green leaves look fresh and unfazed by the summer’s heat, winterberry seems to calmly pass the time while the rest of the garden is flowering itself into a frenzy of red, yellow, and purple.
Earlier in springtime, when the garden was replete with blossoms of pink, white, and blue pastels, diminutive white flowers emerged on the winterberry. They were inconsequential to humans. But the pollinators found them to be impressive.
So, if you believe that all good things come to those who wait, then you are in for a treat when autumn comes. Winterberry is a nice-enough plant during the rest of the year. But starting in autumn and throughout winter, winterberry stops playing nice. Like a high school senior hiding a slinky, strapless, red dress under the frumpy garb her mother made her wear to the prom, at the first sign of frost winterberry sheds its leafy robe to expose its dazzling drop-dead fire-engine red berries. With no leaves to distract, and every branch covered in luscious fruit, winterberry puts on a show while the rest of the garden finally takes a rest.
Winterberry is certainly a show-stopper shrub. Known as Ilex verticillata, winterberry is one of our most prized native plants. Walking through the woods, you would have a hard time finding it in summer. But walk through the woods in winter, and you would have a hard time missing it. Whereas most folks think all hollies are evergreen, winterberry stands out by being deciduous. And whereas most folks are familiar with the prickly shiny deep green leaves of hollies, winterberry leaves are soft in comparison, with a fine serrated edge on a small oblong leaf. The Latin name, Ilex, means ‘evergreen oak’. So, while winterberry does not have the same stature and leaf structure and does not stay evergreen like its ‘oak-like’ holly cousins do, winterberry does have other traits in common, such as its ease of culture and its overabundance of berries.
In its native range, which includes Maryland, winterberry prefers a very moist, almost swampy soil. However, give it regular garden soil, sun or part shade, and a drink during drought, and you will be rewarded with years and years of outstanding performance. Winterberry is not bothered by any pests or diseases. Its only demand is to be partnered with a willing male (another trait it has in common with the holly family), meaning a male winterberry plant that blooms at the same time, so that pollinating insects can do their magic.
The nursery industry has made it easy to find a willing partner and has different male plants available to suit the lovely females. Winterberry plants produce more berries in sunnier locations, so be sure not to give it too much shade, and be aware that it may take a few seasons for the winterberry plants to start producing berries in large quantities.
So why should you plant a winterberry? Have you ever gone outside in mid-January and seen color, other than green or gray, in the garden? Imagine looking out your window, when all of the perennials have departed underground, all of the leaves have vanished from the branches of trees and shrubs, and seeing a beacon of bright color emanating from a single shrub, like a lighthouse in a dismal sea of gray. Now imagine the spectacle of color the winterberry flaunts when it snows; a crimson silhouette against a backdrop of pristine white.
Humans won’t be the only ones to notice the fluorescent red berries. Winterberry is a staple food source for many mammals and birds, particularly birds in the thrush family. The thrush family includes favorite backyard visitors, such as robins, wood thrushes, and bluebirds. Blue jays, catbirds, cedar waxwings, and mockingbirds also relish the juicy fruit. Winterberry berries are often passed up by birds until late winter or early spring. Therefore the birds have something to eat in early spring when there is little else available, and you get to enjoy the color of the gorgeous berries all winter long.
Many birds enjoy stripping the berries from the branches during their spring migration back north, when they are ravenous for some extra nutrition while staking out territories and searching for mates. But don’t be tempted to eat any yourself. Holly berries and foliage are poisonous to people, so don’t (Don’t! Do Not!) bake a pie or make an herbal tea!
Winterberry is attractive in any garden setting, whether formal or casual, and makes for a nice green backdrop for summer-blooming perennials such as black-eyed Susan, tickseed, and switchgrass. Winterberry looks good as a single specimen plant, but looks striking when massed in odd-numbered groups. In addition, the berry covered branches are commonly used in floral displays, wreaths and garlands.
There are a number of cultivated varieties that you may find in the nursery trade. ‘Berry Nice’ has deep, glossy red berries and usually grows up to 6 feet tall. ‘Berry Heavy’ has a heavier set of fruit, which means more berries and more color for the garden, and gets a little taller at 6 to 8 feet tall. Use ‘Jim Dandy’ or ‘Southern Gentleman’ to pollinate either of these selections. For something different, try ‘Winter Gold’, which is not quite gold, but rather a pinkish-orange color that matures to a lighter gold. ‘Winter Gold’ usually grows to about 10 feet tall.
Use ‘Southern Gentleman’ as a pollinator. ‘Sparkleberry’ is a hybrid between our native winterberry and a non-native selection. It too has abundant red fruit, but can grow even larger, up to 12 feet tall. Either ‘Apollo’ or ‘Southern Gentleman’ can be used as the male to pollinate this variety. A male plant should be used within 25 feet of the female plants, and you can use one male for every three to five females. Since winterberries are insect pollinated, monogamy is not an issue, and so that you get the most for your money, you should plant more females than males.
Please note that it is necessary to select specific cultivars of males to pollinate specific cultivars of females. This has to do with the origin of the cultivar. Winterberry has a large native range, and can be found growing from Quebec to Florida. Some cultivars are derived from plants that naturally grew in the northern part of the range, and they tend to flower later than other cultivars that resulted from plants which naturally grew in the southern part of the range (e.g., ‘Southern Gentleman’).
If you pair up a northern male with a southern female, or vice versa, they won’t flower at the same time, and therefore pollinators won’t be able to bring pollen to the female flower, and no berries will be initiated (unless perhaps, there are suitable plants elsewhere in the neighborhood, in which case you will have berries but not a lot). Therefore, be sure to ask your nursery salesperson for help in determining the correct male plant for your female cultivars.
So the next time you go plant shopping, go ahead and try some winterberry. Within a few short seasons, you will have wished that you had planted more of these shrubs in your garden. And your neighbors will wish that they had winterberry in their gardens, too.
By Natalie Brewer, Howard County Master Gardener