Plant of the Month Feb 2019: Winterberry

Submitted by Betsy Washington, Northern Neck Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society
Photo: Winterberry holly in bloom in Northumberland Count

Ilex verticillata, Winterberry Holly, is a wonderful deciduous shrub that lights up a winter garden with its brilliant red berries. Winterberry loses its leaves in fall, but they often turn a smoky maroon before dropping and exposing bare gray branches studded with incredibly showy bright red fruit that often persist late into winter. Winterberries can grow from 3 to 12 ft tall and wide, although they are typically less than 10 ft high in a garden setting. In the wild they grow in the damp soils of swamps, low woods, or along streams and ponds, but they will grow just fine in regular garden soils in sun or part shade, as long as the soil is acidic and not too dry.

Winterberry hollies are dioecious, meaning individual shrubs have either male or female flowers, so you will need to have both male and female plants to produce the fruit. One male winterberry can pollinate up to 8 or more females. They look great planted in groups or as informal hedges, just be sure to tuck a known male close by any females. They are perfect planted along streams, ponds, and in naturally low damp areas, and also work well in rain gardens.

Winterberries will create a winter sensation in your landscape and attract wildlife to your garden. Their fruit is fed on by at least 48 species of songbirds, as well as small mammals. Their small, greenish white flowers are not showy, but they provide nectar for both honey and native bees. Henry’s Elf butterflies use winterberries as a host plant. Plant several winterberries and enjoy their spectacular show next winter. You will not be sorry!