Winterberry: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

 Winterberry exploding with color on a powerline in Cumberland, Maine.

Winterberry exploding with color on a powerline in Cumberland, Maine.

Winterberry - nature’s Christmas ornaments!

It's "the most wonderful time of the year" to spot Winterberry on roadsides and in wet meadows and swamps.

The scarlet-red berries of our native holly are literally exploding with color right now. When snow falls, the display gets even more magical.

Commonly known as Winterberry, Ilex verticillata is one of my all-time favorite shrubs. Its scarlet berries seem to literally glow against the gray and brown muted landscapes of our roadsides and wetlands in the late fall and early winter.

After a snowstorm, Winterberry is like a decorative red ribbon on a beautifully wrapped package, just waiting to be opened.  When snow transforms the landscape into a winter wonderland, the bright red berries literally announce their place in the world - nature's Christmas ornaments!

All told, I am not being dramatic when I say that the sight of winterberry actually makes my heart sing.

I'm not alone. Winterberry is highly-prized for outdoor Christmas decor. Right now it's everywhere. Bunches of it can be found for sale in small roadside stands and at local nurseries and farm stores - and for good reason. The cheerful berries on their plain gray stems are the perfect accent to evergreen boughs in a porch or deck planter.

 Winterberry bunches for sale at a local nursery.

Winterberry bunches for sale at a local nursery.

A Living Birdfeeder

The birds prize the berries, but for altogether different reasons. They do not desire a splash of color to lift their spirits at the darkest time of the year (although, surely the sight of the berries does boost their spirits). No, for our wild birds toughing out the winter, their draw to Winterberry is rooted in their instinct to survive.

The berries of this shrub are like winter jewels for bluebirds, grosbeaks, waxwings, cardinals, robins, and other birds seeking much-needed nourishment throughout winter.

Winterberry is unique in that the fruits do not drop to the ground after they become ripe, they hang on to the stem and persist for weeks to months. Even under freeze and thaw cycles, they hang on.

For this reason, they are called "persistent" fruits. Other shrubs with winter-persistent fruits include viburnum, crabapples, chokecherry, hawthorns, and sumac.

All of these are visited and eaten by birds in winter and are great choices to plant in any habitat garden or managed landscape because they significantly improve the habitat quality.

If you planted winterberry shrubs in your yard, farm, or business campus, just think how much joy you would get out of seeing the abundant red berries this time of year.

By planting these shrubs you bring the Christmas colors home to stay - rooted in your own landscape. You won't have to trudge into the swamp or pay for cut stems again. You also get to enjoy the colorful berries on live stems year after year, and in growing number as the shrub matures.

What's really great, is that birds tend to eat these berries later in the year, during the deep cold of mid-winter. So - first you get a showy flush of berries around the holidays, and then you get to enjoy all the birds that will be attracted to its berries later in the winter season.

Talk about a double duty plant!

When the shrub has leaves (spring into fall) it provides great nesting and feeding cover for birds, as well.

Wonderful winterberry, indeed! The gift that keeps on giving.

So...this coming spring (or fall), consider planting winterberry to liven up the landscape and attract some beautiful birds to your property!

GO ON....put it on the list, I know you are already scheming for next year's growing season. Am I right?

*Keep in mind, it is very important to plant more than one shrub of this species in order to get the colorful fruits (see “Did You Know?” section below).

If you want more great ideas for what to plant for wildlife, I can come to your property and give you site-specific recommendations and expert advice so that you can conserve nature right where you are!

I also offer virtual consultations (via video call where I build you a custom Pinterest board), as well as an email and phone option! Just fill out this form, to take the first step.

Did you know? Individual winterberry shrubs are either male or female. The female plants are the ones that fruit, and will only do so if there is a male plant nearby. Ideally, buy four female shrubs and at least one male plant. I would recommend the straight species (Ilex verticillata), not a cultivar, for the most ecological benefit. There is so much more to say about this, contact me for more details.

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  #ThePersonalEcologist   I partner with eco-minded landowners to create thriving wildlife habitats in their backyards, gardens, fields and farms, woods or campuses - at any scale.  I have 25 years of experience in my field, and a lifelong commitment to wildlife conservation.  Read  My Story .

#ThePersonalEcologist

I partner with eco-minded landowners to create thriving wildlife habitats in their backyards, gardens, fields and farms, woods or campuses - at any scale.

I have 25 years of experience in my field, and a lifelong commitment to wildlife conservation.

Read My Story.