If you’re looking for a landscape shrub to provide late-season garden interest, plus lots of berries to feed the wild birds, winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is a perfect choice. Migrating birds on their way south, as well as overwintering songbirds such as white-throated sparrows, cedar waxwings and robins will gobble up the large red berries in late fall and early winter. And when the snow flies, you can enjoy winterberry berries at their most spectacular, contrasted against the white stuff:
Native to the wet woods, thickets and swamps of eastern North America, winterberry grows best in soil with some moisture and sun. Remember that as a holly, winterberry plants needs a male pollinator nearby for berry production. If you don’t have other winterberries growing within 1/2 mile or so of your garden, ask your local nursery for a winterberry pollinator to service your females. They usually have funny names such as ‘Southern Gentleman’ and ‘Jim Dandy’
Use winterberry as a focal point of your early-winter garden, but enjoy the display while you can, because the birds will often strip the berries clean by the holidays, at least in snowy New England…
In the fall, the the masses of bright red berries combine with the last of the beech and maple foliage for a last shout of fire and color before the more subdued tones of the winter landscape set in:
You can buy winterberry holly in nurseries all over eastern North America, but try to choose plants sourced and grown in your local eco-region. Southern-grown winterberries will not be as hardy in northern gardens, so avoid buying from mail-order nurseries outside your region, or ask your nursery where they buy their plants.
Ellen Sousa is a garden coach and writer from Spencer, MA, where she maintains a small horse farm as NWF Certified Backyard Habitat #71074. Her book The New England Natural Habitat Garden will be published by Bunker Hill Press in 2011. Visit her habitat farm website and blog at THBFarm.com
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