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Very Merry Winterberry

In the monochromatic sweep of winter, nothing attracts the eye as much as the color red: cardinals, berries, bright red Christmas decorations, send a burst of joy in an otherwise cheerless landscape.

And there is one landscape specimen that’s a real December head-turner - winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata). This eastern Canada/United States native shrub is a member of the holly family that loses its leaves by this time of the year so that all you see is the big, bright warm-red berries that vie for attention with humans and songbirds alike. Beautiful in late fall, winterberry is even more striking when snow blankets the fields white.

In nature, winterberry shrubs typically call wetland areas home, although they can be successfully cultivated elsewhere – to include your yard. If you do have an area that’s plagued by wetness, take advantage of this shrub's native predisposition and plant it in such areas - where little else would do well.

Winterberry holly, also known as "black alder," "false alder" and "fever bush," 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. These 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 evergreen holly trees and shrubs with which we are most familiar, winterberry holly is deciduous. One might think of this 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; just berries and branches - simply stunning.

While you could go out in the wetlands to dig out a small speciman, a good reason to purchase it from a nursery is the fact that winterberry holly is dioecious (dī-ˈē-shəs). This describes plants that have male reproductive organs in one individual and female in another and require you to have one of each to produce fruit.

A quality nursery can help 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 annual plant care, select one of the dwarf cultivars. Here are a few examples:

  • 'Red Sprite' (3-5 feet in height)

  • 'Berry Poppins' (3-4 feet tall)

  • 'La Have' (3 feet in height)

Besides providing you with lovely red berries that look great in winter floral arrangements, winterberry holly will attract songbirds and other animals to your property, even serving as an emergency food source for wild birds. While this is true of wildlife, the bush is not 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.

So whether you pluck it (like I did) or plant it (in the Spring), may the very site of red today bring a smile to your heart as we celebrate not just the beauty, but the reason for the Season: the blood of Jesus Christ.

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