Does your winter landscape look boring and bland? No color or focal point? It doesn’t have to be that way. There are many plants that offer winter interest in the landscape, even in cold, blustery Wisconsin. One of the most beautiful and versatile is Winterberry (Ilex verticillata).
A Wisonisn Native
Winterberry is a deciduous version of holly, native to Wisconsin. Unlike the traditional Christmas-type holly with the waxy ever green leaves, winterberry loses its leaves every fall. This exposes the brilliant red berries that are produced in abundance on even young bushes.
Winterberry can grow 5-16 feet tall, depending on the variety and location. In most home landscapes they will mature to be around 8 feet tall, but grow slowly. In their native environment they thrive in wet, swampy conditions. Therefore, when planted in landscapes, they need to be watered generously until they are established. Once established, typically after the first year, they will tolerate drier conditions and do not need additional water unless severe drought conditions persist. In moist conditions, the winterberry will spread by suckers and make more of a hedge-type growth. However, in most home landscapes it will remain more of a tighter bush-type clump.
The winterberry does produce a small white flower at bloom time. However, it is fairly inconspicuous and certainly not the most redeeming factor of the plant. By far, the best reason to include these bushes in a landscape is the berries that show up in the winter season.
Winterberry can be planted either in the fall or in the spring. They are also dioecious, meaning there must be at least one male plant in a landscape along with female plants in order to have the dramatic red berries that make this plant so desirable. Be certain when purchasing these plants to get at least one that is marked as a male plant. Many nurseries sell the male and female plants growing together in the same container, but verify the choices.
For best berry production, plant one male for every 3-5 female plants. A good selection for a male plant is “Jim Dandy”. Some nice choices for female plants include: “Afterglow”, “Cacapon”, and “Red Sprite” (a smaller variety, 3-5 feet). By staying with these varieties, bloom time will correspond between male and female plants and ensure berry production.
Once established, Winterberry requires little care. Prune, if necessary, in the late winter/early spring before new growth appears. Remove any dead or misshapen branches, although, in general, very little pruning is required. Winterberry has very little fertilization requirements and few, if any, pests.
An additional selling point to Winterberry is its ability to attract songbirds to the landscape. According to the University of Maine Extension Service “The berries of winterberry are devoured by 49 species of birds, including songbirds, winter waterfowl, and game birds.”
The Dodge County Master Gardener Association designed a display garden and installed it this spring at the Dodge County Administration Building, 127 E. Oak Street, Juneau. One of the plants incorporated in this display garden is Winterberry (“Jim Dandy” and “Afterglow”). Stop by to see a good example of this beauty in an established landscape.
Certified Master Gardener