When most people think of hollies, they envision evergreen branches of red berries with stiff leaves. But did you know there is another type of holly? This one looses its leaves but still has the beautiful red berries.
The winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) of the eastern United States is one of the most beautiful shrubs for the winter landscape. Its bright red berries stand out against a blanket of snow, brightening any gloomy day. But it doesn’t just look good, this shrub is a workhorse in the wildlife backyard.
This deciduous holly is native from Virginia to Texas. It prefers moist soil and is naturally found along streams, swamps and other low areas. In these conditions it forms a suckering bush that can reach 12 feet tall.
Winterberries are special plants because they come in two types: male and female. This is called dioecious. The male plant has different flowers than the female, and it does not have berries in the winter.
“Winterberries are special plants because they come in two types: male and female. This is called dioecious. The male plant has different flowers than the female, and it does not have berries in the winter.”
Because winterberries love low places they are great to the wet spot in your backyard. They prefer moist loamy soil but are very adaptable and able to grow in dry or heavy soils. They are easy to transplant and can take some shade, but it you want lots of berries try full sun. The berries appear in early autumn, before the leaf drop and persist into early spring if not gobbled up by the birds.
Winterberry Holly Quick Facts
As I said, transplanting winterberries are easy, but it does require some planning. Since they are dioecious, be sure to plant one male shrub for every 6-10 female shrubs. If you are purchasing from a retail outlet this will be easy as the male and female plants are clearly labeled. Be careful though, it is not just enough to plant a male shrub, it must be a male that blooms at the same time as your females. Don’t worry though, the end of this post has a handy chart that tells who goes with who.
For wildlife, few shrubs can boast the late winter value of the winterberry. While other fall fruiting shrubs have lost their berries by November, the winterberry hangs on. This happens because winterberries have a low-fat content, so they are not as appealing to birds. Other berries, like those of the Viburnum species, are eaten as fast as they ripen. Winterberries are left by the birds until other foods are gone. Winterberries are important late winter food for birds.Winterberries are important late winter food for birds. Click To Tweet
While winterberries don’t have showy flowers by human standards, they are a favorite among honeybees and other pollinators. The shrub also is the larval host to the Elf butterfly (Microtia elva) and provides cover for sleeping birds.
Winterberries can be purchased from native plant suppliers and State Tree Nurseries unsexed (to learn more about using your State Tree Nursery read my post!) If you want to know if your shrub is a male or female you can purchase a named cultivar. There are many to choose from:
Notable cultivars‘Red Sprite’: a dwarf winterberry topping out at 5 feet tall. Produces lots of fruit and is easy to grow.
‘Winter Red’: growing to 8 feet tall and wide this shrub has a very heavy set of red berries.
‘Winter Gold’: reaching the same heights as its sister ‘Winter Red’ this shrub is different because it has beautiful peach colored berries.
‘Afterglow’: one of the largest cultivars reaching 10 feet tall and wide. The berries start out red but mature to orange giving you the best of both worlds.
‘Jim Dandy’: is the dwarf male cultivar if you are looking for a smaller pollinizer for your female shrubs.
Note: The cultivar ‘Sparkleberry’ is not 100% American winterberry. It is mixed with an Asian species and is not as cold hardy. If you are looking for a native shrub it is best to avoid this cultivar.
Winterberry Pollenizer Partners
|Apollo||Afterglow, Sparkleberry, Winter Red, Bonfire, Red Sprite, Maryland Beauty, Shaver|
|Southern Gentlemen||Sparkleberry, Winter Red, Winter Gold, Stoplight|
|Jim Dandy||Afterglow, Berry Heavy, Berry Nice, Red Sprite, Sparkleberry, Cacapon|
|Raritan||Afterglow, Red Sprite, Sparkleberry, Autumn Glow, Harvest Red, Bonfire, Maryland Beauty, Shaver|
Now that you know more about winterberries, plant one for the birds this spring! Have any other favorite winter shrubs? Tell me in the comments.