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Winterberry Brightens Up the Winter Landscape

Learn how this native deciduous holly can add vibrance to your landscape during the otherwise dull winter months.

Contributors: Tim Wood

Berry Heavy® Ilex verticillata
(deciduous holly)

Mr. Poppins® Ilex verticillata
(deciduous holly)

Berry Heavy Gold® Ilex verticillata
(deciduous holly)

When most people think of holly, they think of a shrub with bright red berries and glossy evergreen foliage. Holly always has glossy evergreen leaves, right? Well, not always. Ilex verticillata, commonly known as winterberry holly, is a native shrub that loses its leaves each autumn. After the leaves have turned yellow and dropped, you are left with a breathtaking view of thousands of brightly colored berries clinging to every stem. What a joy to have such color in the middle of winter!  

Winterberry holly is an amazing plant with a tremendous geographical range and a very diverse genetic expression. Native populations of Ilex verticillata stretch from Nova Scotia, south to Florida and west to Missouri. It can be found growing in low grounds, moist woods, swamps and occasionally in higher, drier soils. Though it is most commonly found in moist soils, it can also be grown quite successfully in average garden soils.

This is an easy plant to grow and it has few serious insect or disease problems. As for its genetic variation, this plant can range in heights from 3 feet to 15 feet in the wild. The width of the plant is also variable. In wet sites, it can sucker to form a dense spreading thicket. In drier soil, it tends to form a tighter clump.

Winterberry holly isn't really grown for its flowers, though it does bloom. It has very small, inconspicuous white flowers, with male flowers and female flowers found in different individual plants. In autumn, female plants develop colorful berries where those tiny flowers bloomed. Its slender branches are draped with small but plentiful berries from base to tip. The berries remain on the plant for several weeks to months through winter, as the birds tend not to be interested in them until they have softened considerably. One male winterberry holly will pollinate up to five female plants; to ensure abundant fruit set, plant the male within about 50'/15.25m of the females. 

There are several types of native winterberry cultivars available at garden centers. The Berry Heavy® series of Ilex verticillata was selected for its extra-large, plentiful fruits which can be either red or gold, depending on which cultivar you choose. Mr. Poppins® is the male pollinator for this series. These are full-sized shrubs that stand 6-8 feet tall at maturity. For something in the 3-4 foot range, try the dwarf Little Goblin® series.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 01/15/2018 - 5:10am

I purchased a two foot bush this fall and planted it , it had a lot of beautiful berries and was healthy. The grandkids ran over it sledding and broke it completely off ..... so you think it will grow from that in the spring??

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Fri, 01/19/2018 - 2:54pm

It will resprout from its remnants, but unfortunately, it will probably be a few years until it is able to flower and fruit again. You can give it some granular fertilizer formulated for trees and shrubs (like Espoma Rose Tone) to help it recover a bit  more quickly. 

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 12/04/2017 - 8:49am

We have a small farm of Winterberry Red that we cut & sell to local florists. The shrubs are about 10 years old & produce beautifully. This year the berries were very abundant & gorgeous but have started to fade in color, turning whitish and some have small dark blemishes. We have had a warmer & drier fall than usual. We do not have an irrigation system. Any ideas as to what is causing the berries to lose their color?

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Mon, 12/04/2017 - 12:25pm

I have consulted all of my available resources and can't find any explanation for what you are seeing. I suspect that it is environmental and has to do with growing conditions this fall, but I can't say exactly what. Winterberry holly does like moist, if not downright wet, soils, so if they dried out considerably this autumn, that could certainly be a likely culprit. If you haven't already, I'd recommend putting down a good thick layer of mulch to help compensate for the lack of supplemental irrigation.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 10/23/2017 - 4:53pm

I have winterberry growing in our back "forty" and I would like to move some to my yard. How do I tell the male plant from the female?

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Thu, 11/30/2017 - 12:17pm

The only way you can tell for certain which plants are male and which are female is when the plants are blooming. Female plants will have a prominent green bead-like center (this is the ovary, which becomes the berry); male plants have nothing in the center but do have a ring of fluffy yellow-tipped anthers.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 01/19/2017 - 12:38pm

What is a good pollinator/ 12ft evergreen winter screen that does not produce berries that can be poisonous to animals, especially dogs. Give me other options that could be a good combination for zone 5.
Thanks

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 02/02/2018 - 11:32am

I'm partial to Redtip Photinia. The deer were happy to eat it, so I don't think toxicity would be a problem. It can get big, though.
http://homeguides.sfgate.com/use-photinia-hedge-23785.html

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Thu, 11/30/2017 - 12:21pm

Your best bet would probably be juniper or arborvitae, but these can cause minor stomach upset if consumed.

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