By Julie Christensen
Found throughout the eastern United States and Canada, winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is aptly named for its bright-red berries that persist well into winter, attracting birds and wildlife. This native shrub grows 6 to 15 feet tall and wide. It spreads through suckers and has a rounded, informal shape.
In addition to its brilliant fruit, winterberry has upright or arching stems and brown to gray bark. The leaves are light to dark green and pointed. They turn light green in the fall. In its native setting, winterberry can be found in moist bogs and woodlands. Accordingly, it prefers moist, acidic soils and partial shade to full sun. In a garden setting, though, this plant can adapt to most growing conditions and it is hardy in US Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 8. Winterberry looks best when planted en masse. Place the shrubs 4 feet apart and plant them where a wide expanse of snow will highlight their red fruit.
Growing Winterberry Holly
Plant winterberry holly from nursery transplants or cuttings, rather than wild plants. Look for improved varieties, especially if you need a smaller plant. Winterberry is dioecious and the male and female flowers form on separate plants. To encourage fruit production, plant at least one male bush for every four female plants. Plant the male within 50 feet of the female plants.
Although winterberry will tolerate some dryness, it grows best with regular moisture and can tolerate wet spots where most plants won’t grow. Amend the soil with compost or peat moss to hold moisture and add sulfur if your soil is alkaline. Winterberry grows best in soil with a pH between 3.5 to 6.0. In alkaline soils, the plants develop iron chlorosis, which is characterized by yellow leaves with green ribs.
Dig a hole as deep as the rootball and at least twice as wide. Moisten the hole with water. Remove the plant from its pot and set it in the hole. Fill the dirt in carefully around the roots and tamp the soil down firmly.
Water the plant at least weekly during the first summer after planting, or as often as needed to keep the soil consistently damp. Once the plant is established, it can tolerate some drought, but it will perform and fruit best with regular watering. If you plant it next to an irrigated lawn, it may get enough water without additional watering.
Winterberry grows moderately and probably won’t need additional fertilizer unless growth is very slow. In this case, fertilize winterberry in the spring with ½ cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer applied around the base of the plant.
Prune winterberry in early spring. Remove any branches that are dead, diseased or rubbing against each other. Cut back the branches to an outward growing bud to encourage lateral branching. These lateral branches will produce lots of bright berries in years to come.
Problems and Pests
Like many native plants, winterberry has few pests or disease problems. The only problems you’ll likely encounter include iron chlorosis if the plants are grown in alkaline soil and slow growth or dropped fruit in response to drought. Plant these hardy shrubs in acidic, moist soil and they’ll grow with almost no maintenance.
Check with your nursery or garden center to find winterberry species suitable for your region. Be sure to choose a male specimen with the same bloom time as your chosen female plants. Again, a local nursery can help you make decisions about which cultivar to plant. Below are just a few common varieties:
- ‘Nana’ or ‘Red Sprite’ is a compact variety that grows only 4 feet tall. It produces exceptionally large berries.
- ‘Autumn Glow’ has brilliant orange and red fall foliage in addition to red fruit. Spectacular!
- ‘Fairfax’ and ‘Winter Red’ have long been appreciated for their brilliant winter fruit.
- ‘Southern Gentleman’ is a common male pollinator in regions with mild winters. Pairs well with ‘Winter Red.’
- Try ‘Raritan Chief’ or ‘Appolo’ male pollinators if you live in the north.
For more information, visit the following links:
Winterberry from the Virginia Cooperative Extension
Winterberry from the Boston Natural Areas Network
Julie Christensen learned about gardening on her grandfather’s farm and mother’s vegetable garden in southern Idaho. Today, she lives and gardens on the high plains of Colorado. When she’s not digging in the dirt, Julie writes about food, education, parenting and gardening.