A Splash of Color
Posted: January 26, 2012
Its bright-red berries light up the dreariest of gray, winter days. And when there is a snowfall, the berries stand out on the white canvas, creating a gorgeous splash of color.
Unlike the evergreen American Holly, Ilex opaca, winterberry holly is a deciduous holly. Its pretty green foliage turns burgundy with the first hard frost and soon falls to the ground, leaving a crop of gorgeous berries that remain throughout the fall and early winter. In January and February, birds looking for an emergency source of winter food find and devour the berries in short order. In our yard it is mockingbirds that stake claim to the bounty.
Winterberry holly is an easy to grow native shrub that fits easily into most yards. In Pennsylvania’s natural areas it is most often found in wet woods or bogs. Its tolerance for flooding makes it a good choice to use in a troublesome wet spot or a rain garden. Don’t have a wet spot? No problem. Because it is comfortable growing in low oxygen soil, winterberry holly translates well into our Pennsylvania clay. It will grow in any soil that doesn’t become really droughty. While winterberry is tolerant of a fairly wide range of pH, it does best in acidic soils and may become chlorotic in alkaline soils. It is equally tolerant of shade and sun, although you will find the best berry crop on plants growing in full sun.
Speaking of berries, like all hollies, Winterberry is dioecious. This means that the male and female flowers are on separate plants. In order to produce berries you need both male and female plants. To assure pollination, they should be planted within 50 feet of each other. In our yard we have one male and five females. Three of the females are in the front yard, the other two in the backyard. All seem to be pollinated just fine and bear a beautiful crop of berries.
Just a word of caution when purchasing your male and female plants. You can buy the straight species at a native plant nursery. At a garden center you are most likely to find cultivars that have been produced by the horticulture industry. Both males and females have been given names such as ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Southern Gentleman’. You need to purchase a male and female that bloom at the same time in order to have fruit set. Garden center personnel will be able to guide you in your choice. Also let the nursery person know if you are looking for winterberries that are native to our area. Some cultivars, such as ‘Sparkleberry’, have been crossed with Japanese hollies. If, like us, you choose plants to benefit wildlife, try to choose a cultivar with berries most similar to the straight species. Some of the newer cultivars of winterberry have been bred for larger, showier berries that birds cannot swallow.
There are many ways to use this medium size, slow growing shrub in your yard. Use a single female plant as a focal point near a lamppost or mailbox, or group a mass of plants to form a more natural looking “thicket”. Winterberries will sucker, so they can be used to cover a large area at the edge of your property or by a pond or stream. Some of its natural associates are red maple, river birch, native willows, red osier dogwood, buttonbush, black chokeberry, ninebark, and highbush blueberry. Winterberry not only looks great planted with its “friends”, but as a community they will all thrive.
So, consider adding a couple of these terrific plants to your yard this year. Next winter you, too, can sit back and enjoy a splash of color.