Plant Profile: Bright Winter Berries

Now that all the leaves have fallen, we are seeing more and more of the colors of winter. Even before we have a backdrop of clean, white snow, red and yellow-twigged dogwoods are in their full glory, birch are showing off their bright white bark, and the winterberry hollies are loaded down with their bright red berries.

A fine native plant, Ilex verticillata and its cultivars add beautiful fall and winter color to wet, boggy areas all over our state. Winterberry holly is happiest in full sun, in an area that stays moist through most of the year. It is found on the edges of streams and lakes or ponds in the wild, and most often along roads that run through marshy areas. It does well in cultivation, adapting to all but the driest of gardens. This is one of the best years I have ever seen for this plant, thanks to the weeks and weeks of rain we got all summer long!

Fading into the background for the majority of the year, winterberry holly is an easy-to-grow shrub with very few pest or disease problems. Its summer foliage is a smooth medium green color. Flowers are unremarkable, white blossoms blossoming in late May through June, which then form fruits. Berries are borne right against the stems themselves, and change from green to the bright red color we all know and love by mid October. Fall foliage is generally shades of yellow, though some varieties will change with hints of red, orange, and purple.

Winterberry in the wild tends to be a small to medium sized shrub, growing from 5 to 12 feet tall or more, with a similar width. In the wettest areas, it will often form colonies, spreading underground and sending up new shoots along the roots of the parent plant. Drier soils will result in a much more compact plant, generally with no root suckers at all.

In the home landscape, two different plants are required to ensure there will be berries in the winter. Hollies are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Female flowers must be pollinated in order to bear fruit. It is a good idea to plant one male for every three to five female plants to ensure proper pollination, though they do not need to be right next to each other. Pollination times vary between varieties, so make sure your male and female plants are compatible. ‘Apollo’, ‘Jim Dandy’, and ‘Southern Gentleman’ are an early, midseason, and late-blooming variety, respectively, that can be matched to your favorite fruiting variety.

Over the years, selections have been made from native plants for size, fruit color, and fruit quantity. ‘Berry Nice’, ‘Red Sprite’, and ‘Winter Red’ are three of the best. ‘Red Sprite’ is a smaller variety, growing no more than 5 feet tall and wide, and is one of the heaviest fruiting varieties out there. All are excellent for use in cut arrangements and outdoor decorating, if the plant isn’t in the right spot to be its own decoration! Winterberry blooms on new wood, so don’t worry about cutting off next year’s fruit.

Winterberry also does a nice job of attracting wildlife to your yard, especially as the winter goes on. All sorts of winter birds depend on the fruits and seeds, and any left at the end of the season will surely be devoured by robins when they return in spring.

View a pollination chart for common Winterberry varieties. (Adobe Acrobat required)