Winterberry Holly Shrubs

Bushes Craved by Songbirds, Provide Color for the Winter Landscape

Winterberry (image) is at its best in December. Its berries shrivel in freezing conditions.
Despite its wintry name, winterberry's display is often at its peak in late fall in very cold areas, where winter's extremes tend to shrivel the berries. David Beaulieu

If I had to pick a Native Plant of the Month for December in eastern North America, I think it would be winterberry holly shrub. The warmth of its bright red berries dispels some of the chill that we feel after our beloved fall foliage has beaten a hasty retreat.

Why You Should Grow This Plant

Landscaping enthusiasts in northern climates begin to engage in a lot of observing, researching, and pondering when December arrives, bringing with it the winter landscape. Since our typical landscaping activity is diminished upon Old Man Winter's arrival, it is a time for us to look ahead and plan. But it is also a time to look around us for winter landscaping ideas -- ideas that may well make the winter landscape less dreary next year. Wild bird watchers will want to take note as well of plants in the wintertime yard that attract songbirds.

Yes, December is a time to look around at other people's landscapes and at nature, in search of features that successfully bring visual interest to the winter landscape. While natural Christmas decorations for outdoors can become de facto a part of a home's landscaping, it is not with these decorations that this article is concerned. Nor am I focusing at this time on the various permanent hardscape elements that play just as important a role in winter as they do the rest of the year. My focus here, rather, is on softscape, and specifically on one plant that is an attention grabber in December even in the wild, both for humans and for songbirds: namely, winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata).

Native Origin, Attributes, Growing Conditions

Winterberry shrubs are native to eastern Canada and the eastern half of the United States. Other common names for Ilex verticillata are "black alder," "false alder" and "fever bush." In nature, winterberry shrubs typically call wetland areas home, although they can be successfully cultivated elsewhere as well in your yard. However, homeowners who have areas of their landscapes plagued by wetness can take advantage of this shrub's native predisposition and plant it in such areas -- where little else would survive. Winterberry holly prefers acidic soils. It can be grown in partial shade or full sun, but locating your bush in an area with more sunlight will increase berry production. As Tim Wood of Spring Meadow Nursery reports, winterberry shrubs can grow anywhere from 3 feet to 15 feet tall, and their width also varies. Nurseries carry a number of cultivars, each with its own height and width specs.

Unlike the holly shrubs with which we are most familiar, winterberry holly is deciduous. One might think of this at first as a drawback, but it is actually a benefit. For winterberry holly's exciting display of red berries is enhanced as this holly shrub sheds its leaves. All the attention is drawn to the plant's fruit, with no foliage to obstruct the viewer's vision.

Selection and Pruning

Although the plant is common in the wild, a good reason to purchase it from a nursery is the fact that winterberry holly is dioecious. Buy at least one male plant (make sure that it is labeled as such by the nursery), and surround it with compatible females (that is, those that bloom at the same time) that will bear the plant's beautiful red berries. A quality nursery may even make the selection process easy for you, grouping compatible males and females together, thereby assuring that you will be bringing home a winterberry capable of fruiting.

If you end up growing a type of winterberry that gets large (as does the species plant), you will probably want to prune it regularly. Not only will such a plant become tall, but it will also spread by suckering. Many people turn to cultivars for a dwarf option, but even some cultivars become large bushes at maturity. For example, Winter Red® will grow to be 8-9 feet tall.

Make a habit of pruning such a plant every year in late winter. Thinning cuts can be used to shape the bush and promote the emergence of new shoots. Remove up to (but no more than) 1/3 of the branches each year. You want to target the oldest branches; prune them down to ground level. Pruning in late winter means, unfortunately, that you will be losing some berries for that year (because these are shrubs that bloom on old wood), but the trade-off is that you are continually rejuvenating your bush by spurring it on to produce younger, more vibrant branches.

If you do not want to be bothered with furnishing such plant care, select one of the dwarf cultivars, examples of which are:

  1. 'Red Sprite' (3-5 feet in height)
  2. 'Berry Poppins' (3-4 feet tall)
  3. 'La Have' (3 feet in height)

But the differences between cultivars go beyond mature size. You can choose to grow a type that strays from producing the normal red berries: 'Winter Gold' bears berries of a golden color. There is even a type with variegated leaves to grow: 'Sunsplash.'

Trivia Corner

The species name, verticillata is Latin for "whorled." Winterberry shrub is not the only plant that bears this name. It also appears, for example, in the botanical name for Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata). But in the latter case, it refers to the arrangement of leaves on the branches. How does it apply to winterberry? The bush does not have whorled leaves. According to the Clemson Extension, the term may refer to "the whorls of berries around the plant stems."

Non-Landscaping Uses for Winterberry Shrubs

Winterberry holly will attract songbirds and other animals to your property, the fruit serving as an emergency food source for wild birds. The University of Maine Extension has assembled a list of wildlife that will eat the berries, including:

  1. Bluebirds
  2. Robins
  3. Catbirds
  4. Mockingbirds
  5. Cedar waxwings
  6. Deer 
  7. Raccoons
  8. Mice 

Do not think that, just because wildlife eats the berries, the bush is totally harmless. It is, in fact, a mildly poisonous plant. The ASPCA observes that the leaves and berries are toxic to cats, dogs, and horses. 

Do you remember me stating above that another common name for this plant is "fever bush?" According to Ally Robertson, the Native American use of Ilex verticillata as medicine is the source of the name, "fever bush." She notes that they also "used the bark to heal cuts and bruises."

If your passion is arts and crafts, not bird watching or herbal medicine, you can still find some uses for this bush. Cut winterberry holly stems in November, before the songbirds get any ideas about stealing the berries from you. The berry-laden branches of Ilex verticillata are prized by arts and crafts enthusiasts for use in such items as floral arrangements, winter window boxes, wreathes, and kissing balls.