‘Tis the season to be berry! Winterberry, that is…
There are some native plants that you grow, not for their flowers, or foliage, but for the blazing color of their berries. This is the time of year, in late autumn when the landscape is brown and gray, that the winterberries come alive in the wetlands throughout New England:
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is native to the eastern US, and is our only deciduous native holly. It has become very popular as a landscaping shrub for its fall and winter interest…
Earlier in the season, winterberries come into their full glory but only as a red swab in a vast fiery canvas:
It’s winter, when all is replaced with white, that winterberry really shows its colors:
The birds love winterberries too, but mostly the overwintering birds who don’t migrate. The summertime birds don’t touch the berries because they don’t ripen until late in the year. The birds always seem to wait through a few freeze and thaw cycles before they find them edible, so thankfully for us, the beautiful red berries last through the first season snows.
Most of the winterberries sold in nurseries are cultivars selected for their compact habit (e.g. ‘Red Sprite’), larger berries (‘Jolly Red) or even unusual berry coloring:
As a wildlife gardener, I’m concerned that the berries of the cultivar winterberries are not as attractive to the wild birds who rely on them as an abundant food source. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that the berries found on wild-grown winterberry species disappear long before the berries found on the cultivars, so I’m curious to see whether this is true in my area. I have ‘Winter Red’ planted on my property, along with straight species nearby, but the berries of all of them are always gone by New Years. It makes sense that local birds would prefer the berries from local genetic provenance, as the plants and birds have co-evolved to depend on each other’s presence in the landscape. And certainly local herbivores (mostly local insects which are important bird food) are more likely to prefer the locally-grown native winterberry foliage as a food source. If you grow winterberry, please share your observations on the cultivars that your local birds seem to prefer. Straight species or cultivar?
So if you’re looking for an eastern US native shrub to plant “for the birds” and have an area with good soil moisture, winterberry is an outstanding choice. Don’t forget that as a holly (Ilex), winterberries are dioecious, meaning that the berry-producing female plants need a male winterberry nearby to produce fruits. ‘Jim Dandy’ and ‘Southern Gentleman’ are male clones sold by most nurseries, but as these are probably from southern genetic stock, they’re not ideal for northern gardeners growing cultivars from northern stock. Northern-grown winterberries are genetically programmed to bloom at a different time than the southern varieties. Ask your native plant society for growers that propagate their plant stock from local genotypes.
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