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Great Plants for New Jersey: Winterberry Holly

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Thursday, March 1, 2007

One of the most fascinating native plants for winter landscapes is the winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata ).

The burst of vibrant red color is provided by numerous red berries produced on leafless twigs. The berries are especially beautiful against the backdrop of a snowy winter landscape. This beautiful deciduous holly is a native to New Jersey and is found from Newfoundland to Michigan and as far south as Florida. The plant flourishes from zones 3 to 9, so it can tolerate tough winters and hot summer temperatures. Many birds rely on this plant as a winter food source.

Landscape benefits and uses

Winterberry is best grown in masses of two to three plants to provide year-round interest and a strong accent to drab winter landscapes. Mass plantings also help to ensure berry set. As with all hollies, a male plant is needed nearby to produce berries. The plant will eventually reach a height and width of 6 to 10 feet.

Compact forms such as 'Red Sprite' reach only 3 to 5 feet high and wide and are better selections for smaller landscapes. 'Winter Red' is one of the best selections for berry production and quality.

'Winter Red' has beautiful leathery, dark green leaves and the plant will reach 8 to 9 feet high and wide after 30 years if left unpruned. The best time to prune these plants for shaping is in the early spring before new growth appears. Pruning later in the season will impact berry set on the plant.

Winterberry thrives in full sun to part shade. This deciduous shrub can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions but will perform best on moist, acidic organic loams. Keep soil pH on the acidic side to ensure proper nutrient uptake for the plant. I have seen this plant on heavy clay soils to sandy soils. It will perform rather well in landscapes with poor drainage. On drier landscapes, it is wise to include plenty of organic matter when planting Winterberry and keep 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch around the plant to help retain moisture around roots.

Wildlife benefits

The berries appear in September and last well into December and January. Bluebirds, robins and cedar waxwings especially love the berries. The berries can be an important winter food source for birds. Many birds will only consume the berries after many frosts have sufficiently softened the fruit. Larger plants can become nesting sites for many birds in the summer. The plant provides an important nectar source for native bees.

This is one of my favorite native plants. It's a tough plant that adds great interest to the landscape and restores the beauty and value of native plants in the landscape. Some people use the showy winter berries and branches for winter floral arrangements but I would advise limiting this activity to overgrown branches on the shrub. If your goal is to keep native plants in the landscape then avoid crosses with Ilex serrata or Finetooth Holly. Finetooth holly is not a native to the United States but originates in Japan and China. Some of the selections from crosses with this non-native include 'Autumn Glow', 'Bonfire', 'Harvest Red' and 'Sparkleberry.'