In the last weeks of late autumn —after the leaves have all fallen and deciduous trees stand naked and rattling in cold wind— the conifers and fruit-bearing shrubs reign supreme in my garden. Late fall and early winter days —laced with hoar frost and sugar-coatings of fresh snow— are brightened by the glow of colorful berries, twigs and richly hued conifers. All of the delicately textured remnants —needles, seeds and tiny twigs— catch falling ice crystals and snow flakes; like sweets coated in confectioners sugar.
One of my favorite late-season shrubs, the Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’ (common, dwarf winterberry holly) planted in front of my Secret Garden, is a knock-out at this time of year. With bright red fruit ripening in September and holding through January or longer, this shrub is invaluable for color in the winter landscape. Chosen for its charmingly petite, compact size (about 3-5 feet high and wide) I. verticillata ‘Red Sprite’ is a great choice for softening the edges of walls, buildings and fences. I grow several winterberry cultivars, including the beautiful, statuesque I. verticillata ‘Winter Red’ (9′ x 9′), in my landscape; combining them with conifers and other shrubs and trees to create season-spanning interest in the garden. Juniper make great companions for winterberry, and Juniperus chinensis ‘Sargentii’ forms a lovely, contrasting blue-green carpet in front of the dwarf I. verticillata ‘Red Sprite’. Winterberry are extremely hardy shrubs, (USDA zones 3-9) native to eastern North America. These shrubs are long lived and trouble free; provided they are planted in rich, moist, freely- draining, acidic soil in full sun. I use a thick, organic mulch to conserve moisture and keep the root zone of my shrubs cool on hot summer days. When planting winterberry, it’s important to remember that a male cultivar will be needed for pollination -but only the female plants will bear fruit. In the grouping pictured below, the bare twigs in the background are the branches of a male cultivar. The pollinating shrub needn’t be planted in the same grouping -anywhere nearby will do just fine.
Our native winterberry (Ilex verticillata) can usually be found in wet, low-lying areas —places like marsh and swamp land or natural, open drainage areas— where it forms dense thickets. In the later part of the year, the shrubs are filled with colorful, red fruits, which hold until late winter unless they are picked clean by wildlife. Although winterberries are inedible to humans (mildly toxic) they are extremely popular with small mammals and overwintering birds. Gathering winterberry for holiday decorations is a tradition for me, as it is for many cold-climate gardeners. If you are collecting these berries from the wild, please be sure to check with the property owner before harvesting — and never harvest from public parks or protected lands. Always gather branches responsibly; leaving enough for the wildlife depending upon this important source of food. Remember to use sharp pruning shears and make clean cuts at a slight angle (clean pruners with rubbing alcohol after use to prevent spread of disease), as you would on ornamental shrubs in your own garden. Because I have a large garden of my own, I grow enough winterberry to both enjoy in holiday decorations and in the landscape, where I can share with local birds. And when January rolls ’round, I deposit my discarded, decorative branches in the snow for field mice and feathered friends.
Article and photographs ⓒ 2010 Michaela at TGE
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