Winterberries Add a Touch of Color to the Winter Garden

Winter has arrived on schedule in Marjorie’s garden.  The wheelbarrow path from wood pile to porch is covered with a carpet of pine needles and cones.  Out in the vegetable garden, the recently turned soil of the garlic bed has hardened to a crust beneath a blanket of straw.  Bird-pecked sunflower heads hang from the tips of tall stems, waiting for first snow to take them down.

Most of the gardens trees and shrubs have run their course, leaving seeds lying dormant in the soil, but not all; a few march to a different drummer.  The witchhazels amaze us with flowers in November.  And I look forward to the fruits of winterberry hollies in the depth of winter.  If it has been a good year for fruit set, the red berries clustered around leafless grey stems will brighten gardens and roadsides into late January, even February, before the birds finally eat them.

Until recently winterberry was Maine’s only red-berried holly, but we can no longer ignore successful efforts to rename mountain holly (know to some as cat berry), Nemopanthus mucronatus, as Ilex mucronata, making it a true holly.  Still, winterberry, Ilex verticillata, is our only Christmas holly, its bare branches of red berries harvested for holiday decoration or left on the shrub to view from windows near the fireplace.

Found growing in the wet soils of red maple swamps and on the bare shoulders of Cadillac Mountain, winterberry is at home in most gardens.  Hardy to USDA Zone 3, it copes well with compacted soils and withstands drought.  Alkaline soils, however, cause yellowing of the foliage and stunted growth.  For best fruiting, plant winterberry in full sun.

All hollies, including winterberry, are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are borne on separate plants.  (“Dioecious” literally means “two houses”.)  One male plant will produce enough pollen to ensure an abundance of berries on several females; a ratio of one pollinator to every nine females is often recommended.   The trick is to plant the right pollinator, as clones selected from different regions of the country have different flowering times.  Just any male will not do.  Fortunately, horticulturists have selected cultivar pairs to ensure proper timing of pollination (see below).

Winterberry fruits are ripening now, yet the birds leave them for us to enjoy.  For some cultivars in some years, the fruits turn red while the leaves are still green and for a short time in fall the plants resemble evergreen hollies that grow wild in Georgia.  But the leaves quickly turn brown and drop, leaving behind a winter holly that is truly Maine.

Arranged Winterberry Marriages

Winterberry fruits ripen in October, while the leaves are still green.

Females to plant with ‘Jim Dandy’, a slow-growing, early-blooming dwarf male clone that grows about 5 feet tall:

‘Afterglow’, large orange-red berries
‘Aurantiaca’, orange-yellow fruit
‘Cacapon’, heavy fruiter with scarlet berries
‘Nana’ (‘Red Sprite’), dwarf plant with red fruit
‘Red Sprite’, a dwarf female clone maturing to only 3 or 4 feet in height.
‘Shaver’, an early-flowering plant that produces orange-red berries
‘Stoplight’, glossy foliage and deep red berries

Females to plant with ‘Southern Gentleman’, a late-blooming male:

‘Shaver’, an early-flowering form with orange-red fruit on an upright 5 feet tall shrub
‘Sparkleberry’, an award-winning selection with abundant red berries that often persist        into spring.  It can reach 12 feet in height.
‘Winter Gold’, apricot-orange berries
‘Winter Red’, abundant and persistent red berries

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)