A Very Berry Time of Year

‘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:

Winterberries in full berry bloom along Route 9, Brookfield MA

Winterberries in full berry bloom along Route 9, Brookfield MA

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:

Winterberry holly at the pond, Garden in the Woods, Framingham, MA

Winterberry holly at the pond, Garden in the Woods, Framingham, MA

It’s winter, when all is replaced with white, that winterberry really shows its colors:

Winterberries in the snow

Photo copyright Trudy Walther


Position this shrub within a sight line of a window, so you can enjoy the view in wintertime. Photo copyright Trudy Walther.


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:

Winterberry 'Winter Gold' at Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Boylston, MA

Winterberry ‘Winter Gold’ at Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Boylston, MA

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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  1. says

    Hey Ellen,

    Thanks for reminding me of the winterberry beauty. I too have some cultivars put in before my conversion to native. This year I bought and planted some small natives and I forgot about them. They are way to young to fruit. And this reminds me that this species has separate male and female plants. Since my new ones are so young, I don’t know what gender they are yet. Heres’ hoping that there is one male in a group of gorgeous ladies.

    Hmmm, and this makes me wonder if the red bloom I see on a nearby hillside is really winterberry in the midst of a large invasive honeysuckle stand. I’m going back to look closer.

    Thanks again,
    Hal Mann recently posted..UGH – Lawns

  2. says

    Ellen – great choice for an article. Winterberry is one of my top favorites, even tho it’s not that easy to propagate and you need male and female stock to get fruit.

    My observations in Stamford CT agree with what others have seen: the berries in the local genotypes out in the wetlands are gone before Xmas but the garden cultivars hold theirs much longer.

  3. julianna says

    very pretty bushes! how wet does it have to be? re native plant societies, i have not been able to find a single person in my area (1/2 way between nyc & albany) who is interested in planting them, most discouraging.. we do have some places that sell some natives, and i am about an hour away from project native in great barrington & the catskill native nursery – does anyone have any suggestions for this area? we have 1.5 acres that i’ve been adding native shrubs, perennials and trees to, i so wish that there was someone around to share the joy of native plants with.


      • julianna says

        thanks vincent – i will add them to my wish list. along with figuring out whether the sassafras and spicebush are male or female and then getting the opposite..

        on another topic, has anyone else ever seen leaf damage on a ninebark? we were away in the summer and came back to that – they are fenced, so it’s unlikely that it was deer that chewed on the leaves – but something did.. i’ve not been able to find any information on ninebark pests.

        thanks again!

    • says

      in terms of finding some like minded native plant nerds – have you looked into the New York Flora Association – http://www.nyflora.org/ ? It is a good group of folks and there are field trips in the summer. there is also a new group that is forming – the Adirondack Botanical Society – http://adkbotsoc.org/. It would be a bit of a drive north for you – but you might keep on eye on their activities as well. You are lucky to be near the Catskill Native Nursery and Project Native – they are both such great native plant nurseries!

    • Ruth says


      Look into the Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College. It’s the first satellite of the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX. They have several symposia annually, and a native plant sale (tho selling many cultivars…).

      Also check out New Directions in the American Landscape, which puts together a terrific 2-day sympisium every January, with duplicate programs in Philadelphia and New London CT. It’s focus is native landscape, and the audience is professionals…designers, growers, contractors.

  4. says


    In Catherine Zimmerman’s book “Urban & Surburban Meadows”, she lists 6 nurseries in NY State. Don’t know if any of these cities are close to you, Springwater, Kerhonkson, Fort Ann, Montauk, Pawling, and Groton. If Conneticut is closer, there are 6 also listed for that state. Let me know, and I can post the names.

    Hal Mann recently posted..UGH – Lawns

  5. says


    Here are some more sources, copied from the Wild Ones website:

    •Habitat Gardening in Central New York Chapter
    Habitat Gardening in Central New York meets every month to learn more about creating a healthy habitat for people and for wildlife. We’re fortunate to have many knowledgeable people in Central New York who present programs on native plants, natural landscaping, and providing habitat for wildlife. For more information, visit our website or contact Janet Allen at (315) 487-5742 or by e-mail.

    •Niagara Falls and River Region Chapter
    The Niagara Falls and River Chapter encompasses an area in New York which follows the Niagara River Greenway municipal boundaries as determined by the Niagara River Greenway Commisison and the Niagara Falls National Heritage area. The chapter area includes the following municipalities: City of Niagara Falls and the lower Niagara River gorge, the Towns of Porter, Lewiston, Niagara, and Tonawanda, the villages of Youngstown and Lewiston, and Wheatfield, North Tonawanda, City of Tonawanda, Grand Island, Kenmore, and Buffalo, New York. For more information on this chapter, you can contact Wild Ones at 877-394-9453 or via e-mail.

    Hope this helps,
    Hal Mann recently posted..UGH – Lawns

  6. says

    Ellen, I appreciate your great photos and information. I’m in Kentucky and have two female Bonfire winterberries. The pollinators swarm in the spring and the birds have already devoured the berries.I’ve recently planted a Shaver. I notice the berries are about three times the size of the Bonfire berries and, so far, they’ve not been touched. Actually, I’d like to have some bright red berries for the winter months so I’m OK with the birds not gobbling these up immediately. I will be interested to see when and if they eat the larger ones.
    Betty Hall recently posted..Welcome to my website

  7. julianna says

    hi hal, thank you for the information. i am in the rhinebeck/poughkeepsie area and everything about native plants is at least an hour away, which is just far enough to not be easily feasible for me. i can see that i will have to spend more time on these sorts of messaging boards to connect to other native plant folks.

    thanks again for the response, cheers,
    julianna :)

  8. says

    I have Red Sprite and Jim Dandy, but no straight species to compare these to. The birds in my backyard do not touch the berries, it’s the deer that go after them, but not until about Thanksgiving or later. I have watched the deer eat them, and have seen their tracks all around in the snow. But I don’t see the birds nibbling any winterberries. By New Year’s Eve the deer have gotten them all.
    Laurrie recently posted..The 99% Rule

  9. says

    Ellen this has become one of my fav shrubs. I started with red Sprite and this year all the berries were gone before the first snow. I have planted a few more but they did not do well with the summer drought. I may be moving them or at least giving them a bit more water in hopes of more berries…then I can give you an definite answer…I have not found a grower yet in my area of NY either of local winterberry but I will keep searching…many places to try and I just joined my local chapter of Wild Ones.
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Chance vs Choice

  10. says

    Wish it was Winterberry, but drove over there yesterday, walked in the rain to get a closeup look. Unfortunately, appears to one of the 3 invasive honeysuckles we have here. I usually can’t tell these honeysuckles apart. A lot of them still have their green leaves making them easy to spot. But apparently this variety gets rid of the leaves and keeps the berries. I suppose the fact that the berries are still there is probably a clue of its non native status. Darn!
    Hal Mann recently posted..Recent Inspiration

    • says

      Bummer Hal. I feel for ya! Being somebody who is constantly looking out for populations of native shrubs in the wild, more often than not it’s a disappointment to find that it’s yet another invasive (fill in the blank). The invasive honeysuckles are hard to tell apart but they all have that one characteristic that they do VERY well in comparison to their nearby natives…
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..When Life Gives You Storm Damage, Make Habitat!

  11. Sue Sweeney says

    On Dec 27, there is still a sprinkling of species winterberry fruit in the Stamford CT woods — usually the berries are pretty much gone by now but it’s been so warm– we had gnats around Thanksgiving — that the insect-fruit eating birds are still eating bugs. The fake winterberry (i.e. garden cultivars) are still loaded with berries – none have been touched. I’ll will continue to observe and report.

  12. says

    Hi Ellen
    I’m in Canada and we have a holly bush in our garden full of red berries. I was surprised that birds hadn’t eaten any of the berries over the winter. Then a few days ago, I noticed that the American Robin has returned and is eating the berries.
    Thanks for sharing!
    Geoff Clarke recently posted..Canadian Birds in my Garden

  13. says

    Pat J – I was curious too , so I went searching. Wildflower.org has a small description of the process at the bottom of the page. Sounds like we need a lot of patience. 1-3 years to germinate? http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ILDE

    Bill Cullina also describes it in his book “Native Trees, Shrubs & Vines.” He confirms the lengthy germination.

    I wanted to try it, but don’t think I have that kind of patience. Good luck.
    Hal Mann recently posted..Recent Inspiration

  14. Sue Sweeney says

    I’ve tried twice to grow winterberry from seed for Scalzi Riverwalk Nature Preserve with no success and have had poor returns from cuttings- only the very late season one seem to take. Next year, we’re going to try on-site air laying. The trick will be to find a male – may be we can learn to ID them by the flowers. I’d buy a few but the only place I know that offers local genotype native woody plants for Southern CT only has cultivars – no species plants. And he birds have said what they think of the cultivars!


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