‘Tis the season to be berry! Winterberry, that is…
There are some native plants that you grow, not so much for their flowers, or foliage, but for the blazing color of their berries. This is the time of year, in late autumn when the landscape is mostly brown and gray, that the winterberries come alive in the wetlands throughout New England:
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is native to the eastern US, and is our only deciduous native holly. It has become very popular as a landscaping shrub for its fall and winter interest.
Earlier in the fall, winterberries ripen to a bright glossy red, but are visible only as red swabs across a vast fiery canvas:
It’s winter, when all is replaced with white, that winterberry really shows its colors:
Birds love the berries too (called drupes), but mostly overwintering birds such as cedar waxwings, robins and bluebirds who don’t migrate. Summertime birds don’t touch the berries because they don’t taste good until later in the year — when a few freeze and thaw cycles seems to make them edible. So thankfully for us, the beautiful red berries usually last through the first of the season snows before they are gobbled up.
Most of the winterberries sold in nurseries are cultivars selected for their compact habit (e.g. ‘Red Sprite’), larger berries (‘Jolly Red’) or even unusual berry coloring (‘Winter Gold’):
As a wildlife gardener, I’m concerned that the berries of some winterberry cultivars may not be as attractive to wild birds who rely on fall fruits for survival in early winter. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that the berries found on wild-grown winterberry species disappear long before the berries found on the cultivars, so I’m curious to see whether this is true in my area. I have ‘Winter Red’ planted on my property, along with straight species nearby, but the berries of all of them are always gone by New Years. It makes sense that local birds might prefer food from local genetic provenance, as indigenous plants and bird species have co-evolved over millennia, and rely on each other’s presence in the landscape. Certainly local herbivores (mostly local insects which are crucial food for nesting birds) are more likely to prefer the locally-grown native winterberry foliage as a food source.
So if you’re looking for an eastern US native shrub to plant “for the birds” and have an area with decent soil moisture and mostly sun, winterberry is an outstanding choice. Don’t forget that as a holly (Ilex), winterberries are dioecious, meaning that in order to produce fruits, female plants need a male winterberry planted nearby blooming at the same time, so that bees and other pollinators can transfer pollen from male to female flowers. Ask for a “male pollinator” at the nursery, and plant it within a bumble bee’s flight distance of your female winterberry (50-100′ or so).
Note on Male Winterberries: ‘Southern Gentleman’ is a male clone commonly sold at nurseries, but propagated from southern genetic stock, so not ideal for northern gardens — it’s genetically programmed to bloom at a different time than northern varieties. Ask your native plant society for growers that propagate their plant stock from regionally local genotypes to purchase your winterberry hollies.
This is reprinted from my original article posted in the now defunct Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens blog.