Winterberry Holly
Martha Maletta, Home Horticultural Consultant
Dated -  December 21, 2004

One of our showiest hollies, a native of eastern North America, is at its most splendid this time of year. It may not be recognized as a holly because it is deciduous. The brilliant red berries, massed along leafless twigs and set against a snowy backdrop or reflected in an ice bound pond, are a spectacular highlight of the winter countryside or landscape. The plants near my back entrance, loaded with berries and spotlighted at night, have been a cheerful welcome on dark December evenings. Berried twigs are great additions to holiday décor.

Winterberry, Ilex verticillata and the hybrids of I. verticillata and I. serrata (a Japanese species), is available as named varieties and cultivars that vary in mature plant size (generally large – up to 10 feet), fruit color (red, orange, yellow) and size, and leaf characteristics. It tolerates a range of growing conditions: light or heavy soils, acidic to slightly acidic pH, full sun to partial shade (although fruiting is best in full sun). Since it grows naturally in swamps and at pond edges, it is suitable for planting in wet sites, but it tolerates a variety of moisture conditions. No serious pests or diseases are reported.

'Harvest Red' and 'Autumn Glow', cultivars developed and introduced by Dr. Elwin Orton, Research Professor, Cook College. are good plants for the home landscape, being more modest in size and more refined in texture than the parent species. Some popular cultivars from other introducers are: 'Winter Gold', 'Winter Red', 'Sparkleberry', and 'Sunset'. A compact cultivar, ‘Red Sprite’ grows to about 5 feet and produces large – nearly 1/2-inch diameter- fruit. And there are many more named cultivars.

As with most hollies, winterberry fruit are produced on female plants that require a compatible male plant for pollination. And this may be the trickiest part of succeeding with winterberry - getting the right male plant for the planting. In some cases, a specific male cultivar has been developed for the female. For example, 'Raritan Chief' is the male developed by Dr. Orton as pollinator for 'Harvest Red' and 'Autumn Glow'; 'Apollo' is the male for 'Sparkleberry.'

Nurseries carrying winterberry should be able to recommend a pollinator for the cultivars they sell. The key is that the male and female bloom at the same time or that their bloom times overlap. 'Raritan Chief', having a long bloomperiod, will probably serve well as pollinator for many winterberries. Other males are ‘Jim Dandy’ and ‘Southern Gentleman’. Compatibility is not the only factor in berry production, however. Bee activity is critical, and the size and location of the pollinator can be important, too. It is generally recommended that the male be planted “close by” the females. Full sun plantings will be most productive.

Winterberry is probably best used in massed plantings, in shrub borders, and "natural" landscapes. But, I have seen single specimens (the male presumably hidden nearby) and they are the highlight of the winter landscape. Plant winterberry where the fall and early-winter show is sure to be seen. Berries of some cultivars (e.g., ‘Sparkleberry and ‘Winter Red’) can persist well into winter if wildlife – raccoon, squirrel, robin, waxwing, thrushes, brown thrasher, catbird, and flicker – doesn’t find them. Winterberry, reported to be a preferred songbird nesting site as well as a food source, is a good multipurpose addition to landscapes.