Native Plant Spotlight – Winterberry Holly
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Winterberry holly, Ilex verticillata, is a deciduous shrub native to North Carolina that loses its leaves in winter, but can be loaded with beautiful red, red-orange, or gold colored berries in the winter. The common name comes from the berries that provide winter interest and sometimes persist into early spring. The berries ripen and color up in the fall just as the leaves begin to fall. More than 48 species of birds and small mammals feed on the berries and the foliage is a food source for rabbits and deer.
To obtain the beautiful berries the plants must be property cross-pollinated. The plants that produce the berries are female plants, so you must plant a male plant nearby for proper pollination. ‘Jim Dandy’ and ‘Southern Gentleman’ are male plants that pollinate the female winterberry. Just make sure that the bloom time of the male and female match up.
These plants look best when planted in front of an evergreen background that will provide a nice background to showcase the berries. I have planted several of the cultivar ‘Winter Red’ in my garden and have used ‘Chindo’ viburnum for an evergreen background behind the hollies.
The species can grow 10-15’ tall, but usually in the wild is more like a shrub. There are many cultivars that have been developed over the years to produce copious amounts of berries in mostly red colors, but there are a few that tend to be more orange or gold in color. At my home in Virginia, I grew the cultivar ‘Winter Gold’ but to me it was orange in color. It would lose its leaves in late October so was perfect for cutting stems to use in fall arrangements.
These plants do not have many insect or disease problems so are good to have in the landscape if you want low maintenance plants. You can shape the plants in the winter by harvesting stems that you can then use for holiday decorations. Large garden centers in the mid-Atlantic coast often sell the cut stems by the pound during the holidays.
To learn more about this plant and the many cultivars, visit the NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox website and search for winterberry holly.