During these chilly winter days, a sighting of cheerful, red berries lifts our spirits and helps us embrace the dark days a little more easily. Winterberry, also called Michigan Holly or Ilex verticillata, is our featured friend this season. We enjoy its green leaves throughout the growing season, but when the foliage falls away in the fall and winter, we are left with only red, orange, or yellow berries. We’re not mad about it, and the hungry neighborhood birds aren’t, either!
This berry-licious shrub is native throughout eastern North America, growing from eastern Canada all the way down through the southern US, and as far west as Texas. Wow…it’s really living the American dream! It thrives in moist, acidic soil. Peep them as you’re meandering through the woods or driving along the highway. This shrub can grow up to ten feet tall, which means that in a winter garden, Winterberry’s long, woody stems provide fantastic structure. We’re always excited about visual interest when our gardens succumb to the weight of snow and ice, so we like to plant them behind shorter shrubs and bushes.
If you are arranging holiday pots, use both the berries and the branches of this shrub as fabulous holiday decorations that don’t cost any money or generate trash. When you feel like changing up the scene, feed them to the birds.
Winterberry is dioecious. This means that its male and female reproductive organs are located on separate plants. All Winterberry plants grow flowers, but half are male, and half are female. We can also call these reproductive parts “staminate” (male) and “pistillate” (female) flowers. The female flowers will turn into berries, and the males will bear pollen. Identify a female Winterberry by observing a raised, yellow-green nub in the center of each flower, and a male Winterberry with its concave flower centers and yellow, pollen-carrying anthers (photos below).
If you are trying to grow these luscious berry-topped shrubs in your own garden, you have to plant a male and female plant within fifty feet of each other. The males work very hard to pollinate the females, so you only need one male per every five females.
Several bird species, as well as racoons, rabbits and mice, love to munch on these bright fruits. They are a valuable food source for the scarce winter months. Even pollinators can get in on this sweet nectar, including butterflies. Plant a few bushes, and you’ll be supporting your neighbors. Though these berries are super tempting and could seem edible humans, they’re poisonous to us and our pets. Leave ‘em to the birds and butterflies.
Remember this cheerful burst of color next time you’re planning out your full-season interest garden!