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Winterberry Holly

Shrubs Craved by Songbirds, Provide Color for the Winter Landscape


Winterberry holly shrubs are good bushes to brighten December.

Psychedelic art? No! A closeup of winterberry holly, leafless in December.

David Beaulieu

If I had to pick a Native Plant of the Month for December in eastern North America, I think it would be winterberry holly. The warmth of its bright red berries dispels some of the chill we feel after our fall foliage has beaten a hasty retreat.

Landscaping enthusiasts in northern climes begin to engage in a lot of observing, researching and pondering when December arrives, bringing with it the winter landscape. Since our typical landscaping activity is diminished upon Old Man Winter's arrival, it is a time for us to look ahead and plan. But it is also a time to look around us for winter landscaping ideas -- ideas that may well make the winter landscape less dreary next year. Wild bird watchers will want to take note as well of plants on the winter landscape that attract songbirds.

Yes, December is a time to look around at other people's landscapes and at nature, in search of features that successfully bring visual interest to the winter landscape. While natural Christmas decorations for outdoors can become de facto a part of a home's landscaping, it is not with these decorations that this article is concerned. Nor am I focusing at this time on the various permanent hardscape elements that play just as important a role in winter as they do the rest of the year. My focus here, rather, is on softscape, and specifically on one plant that is an attention grabber in December even in the wild, both for humans and for songbirds: namely, winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata).

Winterberry shrubs are native to eastern Canada and the eastern half of the United States. Other common names for Ilex verticillata are "black alder," "false alder" and "fever bush." In nature winterberry shrubs typically call wetland areas home, although they can be successfully cultivated elsewhere as well by landscapers. However, homeowners who have areas of their landscapes plagued by wetness can take advantage of this shrub's native predisposition and plant it in such areas -- where little else would survive. Winterberry holly prefers acidic soils. It can be grown in partial shade or full sun. As Tim Wood of Spring Meadow Nursery reports, winterberry shrubs can grow anywhere from 3' to 15' tall, and their width also varies. Nurseries carry a number of cultivars, each with its own height and width specs.

Although the plant is common in the wild, a good reason to purchase it from a nursery is the fact that winterberry holly is dioecious. Buy at least one male plant (make sure that it is labeled as such by the nursery), and surround it with the females that will bear the plant's beautiful red berries. Unlike the holly shrubs with which we are most familiar, winterberry holly is deciduous. One might think of this at first as a drawback, but it's actually a benefit. For winterberry holly's exciting display of red berries is enhanced as this holly shrub sheds its leaves. All the attention is drawn to the plant's fruit, with no foliage to obstruct the viewer's vision.

Winterberry holly will attract songbirds to your property, the fruit of winterberry holly serving as an emergency food source for birds. Littleflower Publications, noting winterberry holly's ability to attract songbirds, says that its fruits "are consumed by small mammals, songbirds and game birds, including eastern bluebirds, wild turkeys, and quail. They are also eaten by white-tailed deer."

Other common names of Ilex verticillata are "black alder," "brook alder" and "fever bush." According to Ally Robertson at Bucknell University, the Native American use of Ilex verticillata "as medicine...is where it got the name 'fever bush,'" noting that they also "used the bark to heal cuts and bruises."

If your passion is arts and crafts, not bird watching, cut winterberry holly stems in November, before the songbirds get any ideas about purloining them from you. The berry-laden branches of Ilex verticillata are prized by arts and crafts enthusiasts for use in such items as floral arrangements, wreathes, kissing balls and winter window boxes.

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