Beautiful Native Shrubs for Birds: Winterberry Holly

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:

Winterberries are our only deciduous hollies, losing their leaves in winter. Photo copyright Trudy Walther.

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…

Winterberry holly in winter

Incorporate winterberry into a garden area where you can enjoy the winter show of color and bird activity from indoors. Photo copyright Trudy Walther.

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:

Red winterberries at the pond garden, Garden in the Woods, Framingham MA. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa.

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

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  1. says

    Ellen, it took me a while to love my winterberry hollies (5 including Jim Dandy planted in the back garden along the edge of the meadow). They were rangy and unkempt, with nondescript flowers and the berries never lasted until snow, so I didn’t get the beautiful look you show in your photos. But this year they are finally coming into their own and I love them! Nice full woodland shrubs that are a clean green “filler” in summer and berry laden in fall. I am learning to enjoy the berries with the foliage … I’ll never get berries on bare branches with my hungry birds around! They strip them before Thanksgiving… but right now: lovely. Your shots are so beautiful.

    • says

      Laurrie, they do seem to be a little gawky when young, it’s not until winterberries mature that they take on that open, attractive look that makes their garden space feel ‘lived in’…and a nice thicket of 3 of them should eventually provide plenty of berries for everybody to enjoy :-)

  2. says

    Just be sure you get a male that flowers in the right time frame! Deciduous holly was the first shrub I put in down here (along with witch hazel) and I plopped in an “Apollo” to pollinate it.

    Well, “Apollo” was a large, sturdy plant, flowered like crazy, pollinators all over it…and was over and done with at least a week before the female holly came into flower. (Insert obligatory joke here.) It was a very sad berry crop that year.

    As they’ve released new cultivars of the basic American holly, like “Sparkleberry” and “Winter Gold” (a particularly spectacular orange-berried holly) apparently the actual flowering time now varies a bit. I had to get “Southern Gentleman” this year for my poor bereft female plant and put in a “Winter Gold” that should work with “Apollo.”

    “Southern Gentleman” definitely lived up to expectations, though–my three-year-old holly is completely covered in berries, and I can’t wait until the birds start paying attention.
    UrsulaV recently posted..Crap- it’s winter

    • says

      UrsulaV, very good point about the blooming times. I remember seeing a list somewhere of the various winterberries and their flowering times (early vs late) that would help you choose a pollinator for your female. I’ll try to find it again…


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