by Susan Tito
As the shortest day of the year draws near, I am becoming more of a viewer and less of a doer in the garden. With not much going on outside, it seems that the only muscles I’m flexing regularly are those of my eyes.
Without the welcome distraction of summer’s colorful floral displays, it is easy to appreciate the simplicity of this season. To be sure, there’s a lot of green out there right now, at least in a well-planned garden containing needled and broadleaf evergreens.
But there are also vibrant punches of red to be found, especially in one of my favorite plants, Ilex verticillata, or as it is commonly known, winterberry.
Winterberry is really a holly with a cool gimmick: Unlike most hollies, winterberry sheds its leaves come late autumn. What’s left, however, is nothing short of spectacular —bright red, glossy, plump berries arranged in pseudo whorls on stark stems.
These showy berries really gussy up the winter landscape and are attractive to more than humans. Small mammals, including mice and chipmunks, plus more than 48 species of birds — among them bluebirds, blue jays, brown thrashers, cardinals, cedar waxwings, chickadees, robins and titmice— feast on the fruits.
It’s impossible to overstate the merits of winterberry.
“In addition to beautiful red berries that persist well into winter, winterberry provides many other habitat services,” said Joy Cirigliano, a horticulturist specializing in native plants and ecosystems at Atlantic Nurseries in Dix Hills. “It’s very soil and moisture tolerant, and looks quite attractive while being an environmental workhorse.”
What’s more, it doesn’t have any serious insect or disease problems.
Winterberry is a medium-sized multi-stemmed woody shrub native to eastern North America. Being native, of course, means that it does well here on Long Island. Plant it in full sun to part shade in medium to wet soil and it will reward you with a bevy of berries — but only if you are well versed in the horticultural facts of life.
You see, as with all hollies, winterberry is dioecious. This means you need separate male and female plants to get profuse berry production.
Winterberry has many uses in the landscape. It’s great as a foundation planting or an informal hedge, in a mixed border or as a specimen.
“It’s best to plant winterberry in clumps or place three to five female plants on either side of a male when planted in a line,” said Ms. Cirigliano, who is also a lecturer and owner of Joy’s Forever Endeavor, a company focused on helping homeowners with habitat gardening and stewardship.
Winterberry is a wetland species and imparts significant benefit to the environment.
“Its roots act like a water/soil filter, so heavy metals and excessive nutrients are held in the root system and the silt, sediment or soil surrounding it,” said Ms. Cirigliano. “Pollutants, such as heavy metals, attach to the soil particles, which are restrained by the plant’s roots. The plants then convert heavy metals into a less harmful chemical form.”
This filter action works well especially in areas with heavy exposure to lawn fertilizer. Winterberry’s roots retain nitrogen and phosphorus from the fertilizer instead of allowing these elements to flow down into the soil, through the water table and out into our neighboring estuaries.
For the environmentally conscious gardener, it is best to use only the straight species, according to Ms. Cirigliano. That’s because certain cultivars are bred to produce larger berries, which enhances the shrub’s ornamental value but can cause problems for some birds, especially those that can’t swallow the larger fruits whole.
With so many winterberry varieties on the market, it can be difficult to know which ones to plant.
Consider ‘Winter Red,’ a late-season female plant that produces abundant berries and is close to the straight species. It matures to about 6 to 8 feet tall and has a similar spread. Shorter female cultivars, at 3 to 5 feet tall, include ‘Little Goblin’ and ‘Berry Poppins.’ ‘Southern Gentleman,’ at 6 to 8 feet tall, is the male pollinator for all three plants, as is ‘Mr. Poppins,’ a shorter selection, maturing to 3 to 5 feet tall.
There are many other varieties from which to choose, so it is prudent to research which cultivars work best for your space. Just know that you can never go wrong with winterberry, especially when nothing exciting is happening in your garden at the end of the growing season.
That’s when you’ll know it is time to throw in the trowel and berry up your winter landscape!
Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Writers Association. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.