Ontario Trees & Shrubs website

The Monday Garden
Great Americans: Winterberry

Issue No. 143 - December 19, 2004
by Sue Sweeney

The Winter Solstice is coming up this week. It’s a good time to look out the window and honestly evaluative whether your garden looks as good now as it did in June and whether it’s as supportive to your non-human neighbors as it was in June. There’s no reason why it can’t be.

Whether you live in up north in frosty Zone 3 or down south in toasty Zone 9, winterberry (Ilex verticillata ), one of our native, deciduous hollies, can fill your winter garden with bright red berries and winter birds. It’ll look great the rest of the time, too.


picture: Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) in early fall. The berries are not yet red-ripe but the foliage is beginning to yellow. The swamp walk at the Bartlett Arboretum 2004.
This “Great American” is easy care if you have the right location for it; if not, pick something else because there’s nothing sadder than a great plant struggling to survive in the wrong place. Here’s the tricks:

Winterberry needs a wet spot. Perhaps there’s a low place in your garden, you’re cultivating a rain garden, or you’re lucky enough to live next to a body of water. Winterberry’s not drought tolerant, so don’t plant it if you’re going to have end up watering it every summer.

Winterberry needs acidic soil. This is not a plant for alkaline or neutral soil. This is a swamp plant that wants its feet in moist, acidic soil high in organic material.

Winterberry likes to spread. While winterberry’s a slow grower, like most hollies, but over time it will send out root suckers to make a large clump. A small clump is always graceful and welcome. A large clump, tough, isn’t for every garden. If you have space, great--your birds will love you for it. However, if you want to keep the bush in a small area, think about putting in a root barrier to keep it in check.

Winterberry needs a mate. Hollies come in male and female pairs, and only the females have the fruit. What you can do to get the most out of your garden is to get a dwarf winterberry male and plant it in part shade (e.g. that low spot at the back of the border) where its attractive green leaves and small white flowers in early summer will set off the showier plants. Then, put the female(s) in full sun where you’ll get maximum berries. The male needs to be within about 50’ of the female and one male can balance up to 10 or 15 female plants, if you’re making an unclipped winterberry hedge.

Winterberry comes in numerous cultivars. The plant nurseries have seen the value of winterberry and there’s a good 20 or so cultivars available. So you can pick height and spread. You can also pick ones that are more tolerant of your gardening conditions (wetter, dryer, more sun, warmer, etc).

Winter interest and bird food is great but why plant a skuzzy forest-threatening euonymus when you can have this Great American?


picture: Winterberry in late summer. The berries are still green as is the foliage which shows a bit of some insect damage. The swamp walk at the Bartlett Arboretum 2004.
picture: Winterberry in late fall. The berries are red-ripe but the foliage has not yet fallen. The swamp walk at the Bartlett Arboretum 2004.
picture: Winterberry in early winter The red berries haven’t been munched up yet but the foliage is gone.
From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

More articles from The Monday Garden

"The Monday Garden" is a FREE email publication published by Sue Sweeney. Visit The Monday Garden website