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.
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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- May 4, 2019 April Phenology Notes
- Apr 1, 2019 March Phenology Notes
- Feb 5, 2019 Plan Your Habitat Garden
- Jan 2, 2019 Wild Reads #1: We Took to The Woods
- Nov 28, 2018 Winterberry: The Gift that Keeps on Giving
- Aug 16, 2018 Where Have All the Whip-poor-wills Gone?
- Jun 22, 2018 Give a Warm Welcome to Wild Bees (Super-pollinators Part 2)
- May 16, 2018 The Wonder of Wild Bees (Super-pollinators Part 1)
- Apr 19, 2018 Saving Songbirds Starts with Your Morning Coffee
- Mar 21, 2018 Wildlife Habitat Design in A Wounded World
- Feb 16, 2018 “Intelligent Tinkering” - How to Boost Biodiversity at Home (Leopold’s Wise Words Part 2)
- Jan 18, 2018 Carnivore Coexistence (Leopold's Wise Words - Part 1)
- Dec 14, 2017 Dead and Dying Trees are Key to Life
- Nov 14, 2017 A Top Threat to Biodiversity: Invasive Plants
- Oct 18, 2017 Hallowed Habitat
- Sep 21, 2017 Beechnuts - Superfood for Bears & Other Wildlife
- Aug 22, 2017 Baby Bats Need Love Too
- Jul 25, 2017 Bring the Magic of Fireflies Back Home Again