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Besides being easy to care for once established, they often provide a great habitat and food source for area wildlife. And some provide a spectacular show when not much else is going on. One of my all time favorite plants for winter is the deciduous winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata). In fall, the leaves turn from green to yellow, and then drop to the ground, leaving brilliant berries that brighten up the fall and winter landscape.
Many people are unfamiliar with hollies that don’t have glossy evergreen leaves, but once they discover their versatility and beauty, they are usually smitten and put them on their “most wanted” list. Unlike evergreen hollies, deciduous hollies are more adaptable to variations in sun, heat and moisture. Their USDA hardiness zones range from 4 to 9.
Although winterberry hollies are typically found in low swampy areas, they do equally well in average or dry areas. I have a dry area in my yard, where my ‘Sparkleberry’ holly lights up the place! Who needs holiday lights when you’ve got winterberries?
These versatile shrubs grow to a height of 5 to 12 feet and are native to from Nova Scotia, south to Florida and west to Missouri. While full sun is ideal for your deciduous holly, these native shrubs do fine in partial shade, but you may get fewer berries. More sun means more fruit!
It may be hard to decide which winterberry to plant in your garden, so I recommend trying a couple different types. If you are looking for a larger shrub with red berries, ‘Sparkleberry’ is a good choice as it reaches about 12 feet tall. With its medium height (8 to 9’) and slightly larger red berries, ‘Winter Red’ is a favorite. ‘Red Sprite’ fits well into smaller landscapes with a mature size of three to five feet.
But not all winterberry hollies have red berries. Maturing to about 8’ tall, ‘Winter Gold’ has berries that vary from pinkish to golden-orange. ‘Afterglow’ has large orange-red berries that mature to orange, with a height of about 10 feet tall.
In order for the bushes to produce lots of berries, a male is needed for pollination.
To ensure plentiful fruit, plant both sexes near each other (within 40 feet). You need about one male to five females, but you need the right male. ‘Jim Dandy’, ‘Apollo’ and ‘Southern Gentlemen’ are the most common male pollinators:
‘Jim Dandy’ pollinates ‘Afterglow’ and ‘Red Sprite’
‘Apollo’ pollinates ‘Sparkleberry’ and ‘Winter Red’
‘Southern Gentleman’ pollinates ‘Sparkleberry’, ‘Winter Red’, ‘Winter Gold’ and ‘Red Sprite’
For the Birds
Nearly 50 types of birds eat the brightly colored fruit of this deciduous holly, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Luckily, the birds do not enjoy these berries until later in winter after the fruit has softened. Some years, winterberry holly bushes provide welcome food for the returning robins in late February.
My wife and daughters like to take some of the branches and make attractive winter displays around the house, both indoors and out. With one large shrub, you can fill up quite a few containers with the cuttings.
The winterberry holly branches blend especially well with evergreen cuttings from spruce, evergreen holly and red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea). You can also use them in wreaths or swags both inside and outside of your home. Also, there is no need to keep cuttings in water for bouquets—they will keep indoors for many weeks.
The one thing southern gardeners don’t get to enjoy is a winterberry holly in the snow. The berries really pop in that white background! But whether north or south, I guarantee that your neighbors and passersby will ask you the name of that pretty shrub with the red berries. So give this easy-care shrub a try: it’s a sure winner in the winter.