Bright, Red Winterberry & Juniper Magic: Lovely, Native Ilex verticillata Sparkles & Glows on Grey, Chilly Days…

Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’, paired here with Juniperus chinensis ‘Sargentii’

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.

In front of my Secret Garden, Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’ looks like a tasty treat in a confectioner’s window. I snapped this picture the morning after the first snow…

Birds love plump, red winterberries, and will often gobble them up before the end of December. I keep planting more to please the crowd…

The bright red winterberries are even more stunning when snow drifts cover the carpet of juniper in a soft, white blanket

Rock candy mountain – Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’, the morning after an ice storm

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.

If you have the room, it makes sense to grow extra winterberry for holiday decorations

Bright red winterberries sparkle in a vase here in my dining room


Article and photographs â“’ 2010 Michaela at TGE

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Do you enjoy visiting The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through our affiliate links. A small percentage of any sale originating from The Gardener’s Eden will go toward web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you for your support!

Gardener's Supply Company

4 Replies to “Bright, Red Winterberry & Juniper Magic: Lovely, Native Ilex verticillata Sparkles & Glows on Grey, Chilly Days…”

  1. Deb Weyrich-Cody

    Hi Michaela, LOVE the Red Sprite on blue juniper, red berries on white snow banks, red on ice… Looks like another one to add to my list of “must have (somewhere in the yard)”. I read somewhere recently that Bluebirds are starting to winter over now and this might just be the ticket to help them out. Thank you!

  2. Michaela

    Hi Deb, I love the winterberry too. I sure wish the bluebirds would come to visit my garden. They pass through, but never seem to stay. Maybe next year!
    xo M

  3. Lorraine Wales

    What wonderful pictures you shared with us. Thanks you.
    My question is, I had small potted winterberry plants outside and then took them inside for the holidays. I would like to plant them outside as soon as the earth thaws. I have had them inside for several weeks now and they are looking pretty sad. Can I tansplant them now in some mulch and leave them in my garage for the winter and hope they will make it? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Rainy

  4. Michaela

    Hi Lorraine,
    You’re most welcome, and thank you for the lovely comments. You didn’t say where you live, but I am going to guess that it is cold and that the ground is frozen where you are located. If that is the case, then yes: you can actually leave them right in the nursery pots and place them in a box filled with bark mulch in a very cold spot (like an unheated barn or garage) to overwinter. If the spot is accessible to mice, be sure to protect the I. verticillata with protective wire. If they have been indoors for several weeks, then before you move them to a mulched box: reduce watering and locate them in a cooler spot before putting them in deep-freezing conditions. Once in the garage, If the room remains cold (below 32 F, most of the time), you won’t need to water. But if the garage is heated and goes above freezing, you should give the plants just a very small amount of water each month. Be sure not to overwater. You want them to go into dormancy. They may drop berries –and leaves if they still have them– but they should be OK. As soon as the ground outdoors has warmed up and dried out, plant them, and when your other trees/shrubs start to produce new growth, give the winterberry a balanced fertilizer like Pro-Grow and be sure to water regularly if it’s a dry spring. Remember that you will need to purchase a male, like ‘Southern Gentleman’ or ‘Apollo’ for pollination in order to get your winterberry to produce fruit next fall.
    I. verticillata is generally pretty tough! Good luck Rainy.
    Best, Michaela

Comments are closed.