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.