WINTERBERRY: OUR NATIVE HOLLY

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WINTERBERRY: OUR NATIVE HOLLY

By Dr. Leonard Perry
Extension Greenhouse and Nursery Crops Specialist
University of Vermont

If you are looking for an ornamental plant
to add dazzle to the winter landscape, consider the
winterberry, also known as winterberry holly or North
American holly.

Although in the same plant family as English
holly (Ilex aquifolium)–our traditional Christmas holly
with its glossy evergreen foliage and bright red berries–winterberry
(Ilex verticillata) is a deciduous plant. It loses its
dull green leaves in autumn, leaving an abundance of
attractive scarlet berries on every stem and branch.

Native populations of winterberry can
be found from the eastern Canadian provinces of Newfoundland
and New Brunswick south to Virginia and as far west
as Michigan. This shrub is generally found in swampy
areas, wet thickets, and low woodlands, and can grow
up to 10 to 15 feet tall. Cultivars for landscape situations
range in height from three feet up to10 or 12.

Winterberry is hardy for USDA hardiness
zones 3 to 9 though select your cultivar carefully as
some are hardy only to zone 5. Plant in full sunlight.
This plant prefers acidic to slightly acidic, wet soil,
conditions which mimic its natural habitat. Planting
it near a pond or stream is perfect. However, it also
can be grown in drier soil or partial shade though may
not spread as much.

It is ideal for wildlife landscaping as
it provides nesting sites for songbirds and fruit for
red squirrels, cedar waxwings, catbirds, thrushes, and
other birds. It is surprisingly disease-resistant, prone
only to occasional leaf spots or powdery mildew.

One thing to keep in mind is that you
will need to plant both male and female plants for fruit
production. Purchase at least one male plant for every
three to four female plants, and plant close together.

You also need to think about placement
in the garden as this shrub is at its most attractive
stage from August through mid-winter when its branches
are covered with brightly colored berries. (I find mine
lose berries or they’re eaten by Thanksgiving– a treat
for the birds!) In summer this plant has only tiny white
flowers. Leaves are pale to dark green and elliptical
to round in shape, depending on cultivar.

Many cultivars of winterberry grow well
in this part of the country. ‘Winter Red’ is a favorite
for cutting for arrangements as it is multi-stemmed
with an abundance of bright red, medium-sized berries
and dark green leaves that turn bronze in autumn. It
can grow to nine feet tall. ‘Winter Gold’ has a similar
growth habit and produces attractive pinkish-orange
berries that get paler as they age.

For a low hedge or mass planting, choose
‘Red Sprite’ with its tight branching and mature height
of only three to five feet or ‘Afterglow’ with its lovely
orange-red berries. Or ask your landscaper or the experts
at your local nursery for their recommendations on the
best cultivars for your situation.


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