By Elizabeth MacInerney (shearson) February 19, 2012
At this time of year we're often under whelmed by the lack of colour out our windows. The beautiful reds, yellows and oranges of sugar maple and beech have finished their seasonal show. Frosts have touched many of our beautiful blooms and even stalwart, hardy perennials are worse for wear as the colder winds of winter draw near. Fortunately, through appropriate plant selection we can make our gardens truly a four season event complete with bright colours and architectural interest. For those of us living in most of Eastern North America; our native winterberry holly can be the preferred choice.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 28, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond toyour questions.)
No leaves...no problem
Unlike the familiar evergreen Blue hollies; Winterberry Holly is deciduous and will drop its leaves after turning yellow or bronze in autumn. Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata)also known as Common Winterberry or Black Alder (although it isn't an alder at all--how confusing plant names are!) is a member of Aquifoliaceae (the Holly family.) It is native to most of Eastern and Central Canada from Newfoundland to Lake Superior and much of the Eastern United States as far south as Florida.  Although variability is observed in size (some specimens can reach tree size of heights of 25 feet) the tree form is not common in the landscape and it is the smaller shrub form that prevails. Most cultivated varieties are erect or semi-erect shrubs with rounded crowns reaching a height of 6 to 12 feet. Dwarf cultivars such as 'Red Sprite' grow only to a height of 2 to 4 feet.
White clusters of non-showy flowers
are produced in spring in the axils of leaves. The male flowers with their bright yellow stamens provide the pollen for the female flowers which if successfully pollinated, will set fruit in early summer. The fruit of Winterberry Holly are drupes-a fleshy berry like structure that contains the seeds. Mature berries are predominantly red, however the colour palette ranges from white, yellow, orange and even black. For many migratory and resident populations of birds the fruits of the Winterberry Holly provide food during winter when other choices are scarce. The berries are poisonous to humans-so be mindful when planting if curious children are about the garden. Native North Americans used the bark and berries of Winterberry Holly to make medicine; hence the name-feverbush was used to describe this shrub. The leaves are shiny and dark green, arranged alternately on the twig and generally eliptical in shape with serrated margins. Variability is seen in some cultivars. The branches are densely spaced providng birds with nesting and shelter opportunities.
Moist bottomlands and acidic soils
are the desired growing environments of I.verticillata and in its natural state it will often produce suckers to form shrubby thickets. Despite its preferences for moist, organic sites; Winterberry Holly is at home in average garden soil and tolerates shady conditions-although sunnier, open sites produce more flowers and hence more bright beautiful fruit for the winter. Alkaline soils will stress Winterberry Holly plants resulting in lower plant vigour and chlorotic (yellowing) leaves. Keeping your Winterberry Holly moist and supplemented with generous doses of compost will help ensure it feels at home in your garden. However, many gardeners have had success growing Winterberry in drier conditions too-evidence of its adaptability. Winterberry Holly tolerates colder temperatures better than its evergree counterpart American Holly Ilex opaca and most cultivars are hardy to USDA Zone 3. It truly is a holly for all gardeners.
Finding the right match
is important in the world of Ilex as members of this genus are dioecious meaning male and female flowers are formed on separate plants. Male pollinators must be planted within proximity to their female counterparts. One male can pollinate between 3-5 females if the conditions are right and suitable pollenizers such as wasps, bees and yellow jackets are present.  Plant size and spacing vary between cultivars. When selecting plant cultivars it is important to choose male and female plants that bloom sychronously or have some period of overlapping bloom time in order to have successful pollination and subsequent fruit set. Popular combinations include 'Rhett Butler' and (naturally) 'Scarlet O'Hara', 'Southern Gentleman' and 'Sparkleberry', and 'Jim Dandy' paired up with 'Scriber' to create a vivid display of dark red berries.  Most commercial growers propagate Winterberry Holly vegatively through cuttings in order to control the production of male and female plants. The female, berry producing plants are the jewels in the inventory of any commercial nursery.
While evergreen hollies are often featured in holiday decorating
don't overlook adding a bright splash of colour to seasonal vases and urns using an assortment of berry-laden branches cut from Winterberry Holly mixed with the boughs of evergreens such as Eastern-White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis), pine (Pinus spp.), and brightly coloured twigs from Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea). For decorative swags, incorporate your Winterberry Holly branches with wild grape vine (Vitis riparia) or English Ivy (Hedera helix). Add some cones or nuts and voila...seasonal decor to take you right through the holidays. Bring Winterberry Holly branches indoors for use in vases...they can be left in a vase without water for several months and still dazzle.
Striking red berries contrasted with naked twigs
make Winterberry Holly a desirable choice for winter interest. Imagine the sight of bright red berries emerging from under snow topped branches on a crisp winter morning! Many cultivars of Winterberry Holly are developed to create brilliant red masses of berries although some cultivars such as 'Winter Gold' and 'Chrysocarpa' produce yellow fruit. Size and shape too are variable and cultivars are available in dwarf and compact sizes, fastigiate (upright) types, and forms that spread vase-like under the weight of a full load of berries. Use in mass plantings and hedges, in the shrub border or as stand alone specimens. In the landscape-the Winterberry Holly is prized for its high ornamental value. Pair Winterberry holly with other winter interest plants including: ornamental grasses, cone flowers, other berry bearing plants and dwarf evergreens such as Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Mops' to create a visually exciting winter show. The view out your window will truly be a year round treat!
 Farrar, John Laird. Trees in Canada. Markham: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1995
 Ohio State Department of Horticultue and Crop Science accessed from the world wide web.
 North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service-Consumer Fact Sheets.
Photo #1 Robert H. Mohlenbrock
Photo #2 DG PlantFiles
About Elizabeth MacInerney
After many years working in a business envrionment-I decided to make a change. I went back to school and have completed a college program in Environmental Land Management and a University program in Horticulture. I continue to study and take courses-I am currently completing a certificate program in Sustainable Landscaping at the University of Guelph. I work as a professional gardener and have my own gardening business. I love the outdoors-12 months of the year! I enjoy dogs and cats and usually have several around for company. I live in Toronto, Ontario.