Want to add a beautiful native plant to your landscape? You can’t go wrong with winterberry (Ilex verticillata). Attractive all year long, these hollies are at their best in December, brightening cold winter days with their red berries and providing both food and cover for wildlife.
Winterberry, also called Michigan holly or northern holly, grows along the edges and in the shallows of our wetlands. It really starts to stand out in December along Beverly Drive. But since winterberry is not common, you have to look very carefully in order to observe it. As leaves begin to fall on neighboring plants, the bright red berries clustered tightly on long stems will start to become more obvious. Unlike European holly, whose charms include year-long glossy green leaves, winterberry is deciduous, losing its leaves in the winter. But all the better to see the red berries! In addition, these red berries can persist along the stem all winter long, providing beautiful winter interest. Birds also rely upon them for emergency food when winter conditions are harsh so they have the added benefit of feeding wildlife.
Winterberry does best where soil is moist and acidic, a common soil condition in Beverly Shores. This is why you can find it growing along Beverly Drive. But it will tolerate dryer soils if transplanted. It also requires full to part sun. Many cultivars grow to a height of 3 to 5 feet, though some range up to twice that tall. The most complicated part of growing winterberry is that fact that it has male and female plants. Of course, only the female plants produce the beautiful berries. Horticulturists recommend that in mass plantings, in order to obtain berries, at least one male plant is added for every six to ten female plants. There are many cultivars of winterberry available with a variety of attractive features, like greater numbers of berries, but all require the two sexes of plants. Caveat emptor—let the buyer beware. Not every nursery or vender will identify the sex of the plant for you. So either you must search for such a vender, or be prepared for planting a large number of plants to assure the presence of both male and female plants.
Chesterton Feed & Garden Center sells a variety called “Royal Family.” This variety has some male branches grafted on to a female plant, allowing a single plant to produce ample berries. If you are interested in mass planting of winterberry, Cardno’s native plant nursery in Walkerton sells winterberry in bundles of 25 which include a mix of male and female plants.
If you do come across winterberries with their beautiful red berries here in Beverly Shores, please resist the urge to gather some for winter decorations. Leave the berries to the birds and to allow the plants to spread. And whatever you do, be careful in gathering red berries in Beverly Shores. You might inadvertently gather oriental bittersweet berries and by so doing, spread this invasive plant even more widely than it is now.
If you have questions about winterberry or other native or non-native plants, don’t hesitate to contact Terry Bonace (firstname.lastname@example.org), Candice Smith (email@example.com), or Bill Schaudt (firstname.lastname@example.org) for assistance. Also please visit our website, www.bserg.org, for further information on invasive plants and native replacements.