Winterberry brightens a drab landscape

  • The winterberry holly, also called black alder, northern holly or simply winterberry, is a native shrub. pixabay.com

For the Monitor
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The breath-taking colors of autumn are only a memory now as late fall blends into early winter. As I gaze over the landscape there’s a distinctive drabness that identifies this transitional time. However, there is a colorful exception to this muted scenery and that is the winterberry holly (Ilex verticilata). I’ve been noticing its bright red berries in area swamps and thickets and they seem more abundant than ever this year.

The winterberry holly, also called black alder, northern holly or simply winterberry, is a native shrub that grows five to 15 feet tall. It has smooth gray to black bark with bumpy lines called lenticels on slender twigs. These features help distinguish it from other red berry producing plants that could be seen at this time of year like wild rosehips and barberries that have thorny branches.

Unlike the true, evergreen holly, winterberry loses its oblong and finely toothed leaves in the fall. It has small whitish-yellow flowers in the spring and early summer but it is this time of year when it really shows off. Though only ¼-inch in diameter the brilliant red berries cause this shrub to be very conspicuous across great distances.

The red color is actually a way of attracting birds to come and eat the fruit. From the standpoint of a plant, the fruit is just packaging for the seeds. However, the varieties of fruits that we see in the wild are examples of various marketing tools used to entice animals to consume the fruit.

Like the packages or catalogs which sport colorful photographs of luscious looking produce or flowers to encourage people to buy seeds, plants use color and nutrients to lure creatures to mobilize their seeds. There is no better seed disperser than a migratory bird who consumes fruit in one place and then flies a distance away to deposit the seed along with its droppings.

Unfortunately, the winterberry is not the most desirable fruit for the migratory species. It is low in lipids, the fat which is needed to provide energy for a long journey.

However, that’s why these berries remain on the shrubs throughout the fall and well into the winter. They are passed by when higher quality fruits are abundant, but do become an important food source for resident birds during the deep winter after other fruits and seeds have been depleted.

People often find the berries more attractive than the birds and use winterberry as a landscaping plant to brighten up their winter yard.

If you wish to do this, it’s important to know that this plant is dioecious. That means the male flowers are on one plant and the female flowers are on another. In order to get fruit on the female plant, you also need to have a male plant within 40 feet of the female. Nurseries that sell this plant should be able to identify the different types so that you will have success in growing berries.

They grow in swamps and wet areas naturally, but will do well in drier areas too. They also seem to prefer acidic soil, which, around here, isn’t hard to find.

Winterberry provides a nice excuse for an outdoor field trip. Lately, I’ve witnessed several berry hunters out “pruning” the wild shrubs. Sprigs of winterberry can be tucked into evergreen wreaths and swags or used in any number of decorative ways to add color.

Just remember not to harvest too much because when the winter snows really come, the birds will be looking for those berries to help them make it to spring. Also since the weather has been so unseasonably warm, the swamps haven’t frozen yet, so be sure to wear boots if you go in search of winterberry. Of course always get landowner permission as well.

Whether you chose to enjoy the berries by viewing them in the wild, in your yard or as decorations, please don’t taste them. The Poison Control Center does not classify them as toxic but they can cause nausea and vomiting depending on how many are ingested.

So, during the upcoming holiday season, indulge your taste buds on cranberries or other fruit that’s grown for human consumption but feast your eyes on the visual beauty of winterberry holly.