Go local for holly too

Winterberry is a big distraction for me. Every fall since I first noticed the perfectly red masses of berries (and that was before I knew the bush’s name), winterberrysmallI’ve obsessively scanned the roadsides for them. The washes of red come as most other colors in the landscape are fading or disappearing entirely.

Texting is no temptation while I’m driving, but scanning for winterberry? Yes. Just on back roads, though.

At first, it was hard, but now I know where to look, both to check how the berry-harvest is shaping up, and then, to cut branches for winter bouquets.

Winterberry, Ilex verticillata, is native to all of eastern North America from Florida to the Arctic Circle. Photo by Martha Foley

Winterberry, Ilex verticillata, is native to all of eastern North America from Florida to the Arctic Circle. Photo by Martha Foley

I quickly learned that winterberry favors wet spots, roadside ditches included. And I found winterberry bushes in places I could cut in good conscience.

Today in our weekly conversation, Amy Ivy and I shared our enthusiasm for winterberry and other native, abundant wreath and bouquet materials. Cedars, grapevines, white pines and other needle-y evergreens, dried flowers and seed heads.

Being a horticulturist, she reminded me that winterberry is actually holly, our native holly…it just doesn’t hang on to its leaves like the better-known hollies do. I suppose that counts against it for true Christmas appeal, but here it is, after all. And it’s gorgeous, outdoors and indoors.

Coincidentally, another Cooperative Extension horticulturist (and friend) Paul Hetzler sent a seasonal essay to us… all about winterberry. Lots of information here:

(Winterberry) is a true holly in the genus Ilex, a close cousin to the evergreen English holly whose boughs we see in holiday wreaths and sprays. Known as winterberry holly or just winterberry, Ilex verticillata is native to all of eastern North America from Florida to the Arctic Circle. Winterberry reaches three to twelve feet tall at maturity, and can grow in dry or wet soils, although it tends to spread and form thickets in wet locations.

Like all hollies, winterberry is dioecious; that is, it has separate male and female plants. The female plant produces berries as long as a male plant is nearby as a source of pollen.



He includes the welcome news that you can cut a fair amount without hurting the bush:

Where it’s abundant (and where one has permission), winterberry can be gathered for use in decorating. You can remove up to one-quarter of the branches from a bush before it will ‘notice’ the loss the following year.

Still, if you’re an enthusiast, and thinking ahead, you might not want to take that much. Maybe that wouldn’t matter, but in my long experience watching winterberry, I can say for sure that the display varies dramatically year to year, so I’m a conservative when it comes to cutting.

Photo by Martha Foley

Photo by Martha Foley

Handle the branches pretty gently and the berries will hang on well. They also fade slowly after they dry (in your house) so you’ll have a dried berry bouquet for months. If you like that sort of thing..

And Paul has an alternative to squishing around in the cold, and often wet, wild:

If you like how they look in a natural setting, you might consider planting winterberry at home. Transplanting from the wild is an option, but there are several good cultivars available commercially. ‘Winter Red’ is a favorite tall cultivar, while ‘Red Sprite’ is a shorter version. The berries of ‘Afterglow’ are orange, and those of ‘Winter Gold’ are pale pink. You’ll need one male plant for every four female to ensure berry production.

And he says winterberry is an ideal landscape shrub: it transplants easily, and isn’t bothered much by pests or diseases. And, of course, it’s a local.


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