Botanical Name: Ilex verticillata
Plant Type :Shrub
Mature Size: 3-15 feet -depending on variety
Sun Exposure: Partial Shade to Full Sun
Bloom Time: Flowers in spring. Berries in fall and winter
Planting Zones: Hardy in zones 3-9
If you've been gardening for any length of time, you probably know of the common winterberry. If not, you'll want to.
Also known by it's botanical name, Ilex verticillata, common winterberry is a medium sized shrub and a member of the holly family. It's native to most of the eastern U.S. where it often grows wild at the edge of wooded areas.
It's foliage is deep glossy green and looks similar to other hollies. Also like some other hollies, it looses it's leaves turn yellow and drop in the fall - exposing the branches. This, my friends, is a good thing.
Common winterberry is a favorite of many gardeners for one specific reason - it's bright red berries. Even better, these berries start showing themselves in fall and continue through much of the winter on the bare stems, glowing like Rudolf's nose and standing-out in an otherwise brown and drab season.
In addition, many species of wildlife eat the berries, which for them is a good source of nutrition in the winter, when other food sources could be scare.
Common winterberry stems and berries are often used in Christmas arangements.
The berries are similar to other hollies, except for their timing and the fact that they are very, very showy.
There is another VERY important factor when it comes to berries and if the plant will produce them at all, and that is pollination. What, you ask? Read on.
Winterberry Companion Plants - How They Produce Berries
In order to produce fruit (berries), you will need at least one male plant and one female plant.
Each individual plant bears only one type of flower - those that will turn into berries (a female plant) or those that produce pollen (a male plant). Therefore, the male winterberry's only purpose is to fertilize the female plant. It will not bare fruit.
Fortunately, you only need to plant one male plant to pollinate up to five female plants. This is a good thing, since the male plant isn't as showy.
You'll definitely want more females than males. The male and females can be planted anywhere within about 50 feet of each other and will be pollinated by birds, insects and wind. What we would do is to plant a couple of females in plain view and hide the male in a less-conspicuous place.
One other problem. In order to produce fruit the males and the females need to flower at the same time - and different varieties of common winterberry will flower at different times - some early, some later. This means you must match the male and the female together. While this could be daunting for homeowners, and even pros like us, it's not. Here's why...
If you want winterberries you should simply go to a nursery and let them advise you and tell you which ones are male, which are female, and which 2 to plant together.
How To Grow Winterberry
Most often winterberry is grown from potted plants you purchase at a nursery.
Indeed, this is the best way to add them to your plant arsenal, since planting them from seed would only work if you knew which companion plants needed to be matched together. No one we know has ever planted common winterberry from seed and we wouldn't recommend it - especially for beginning gardeners.
Choose a location that receives at least 4 hours of sun per day. Any less sun will mean the flowers will not be as plentiful and therefore, neither will the berries.
The plant is extremely versitle. It can take more sun but planting in a sunny location means the problem is not sun, but dry ground, since the sun dries it out quicker.
The best planting location would be along the edge of a wooded area, where the soil stays moist and fertile from the native trees and leaves. However, they will grow most other places, as long as they get the required amount of sun.
Another common planting location is near streams or ponds or any area of your yard that stays moist because it's not exposed to the hot summer sun.
You could also use it as a privacy shrub if the area where you want privacy happens to fit the location requirements we describe above.
Like most of gardening, you never know until you try - and we'd recommend if you're questioning where to plant them, try it for yourself and see how it works out. You never know for sure until you try.
Be sure to keep your winterberries watered if you're not getting enough rain. You should do this until they get established, which could take up to 1 year.
CLICK HERE to read our advice on how to tell if your plants need watering.
There are a number of common winterberry varieties that would make excellent additions to any garden. Here are a few.
Because many varieties are quite similar in looks, we are not including photos of each type. However, we urge you to visit your local nursery to see which ones they stock and their appearances.
Berry Heavy (Female)
Berry Heavy produces white blooms in spring and large groups of bright-red berries that last from late fall through the end of the year. It sports glossy leaves that turn purplish in the fall. It grows 6 to 8 feet.
Berry Nice (Female)
Berry Nice also produces white blooms in spring and deep-red berries that are very showing provide stark contrast to its foliage throughout fall and early winter. It grows somewhat smaller 5 to 8 feet.
Sparkleberry produces masses of smallish, fireg red berries throughout most of the winter.
Southern Gentleman (Male)
Southern Gentleman (don't you like that name?!) is a hardy variety that matures to heights of about 12 feet. Although the shrub develops no berries, it displays ivory-tinted, slightly fragrant blooms in late spring.
Apollo is an upright winterberry shrub that grows to around 6 to 10 feet. The feature that is most liked about the Apollo variety is its bronze or rust colored foliage.
Raritan Chief (Male)
Another male variety, Raritan Chief is a spreading shrub that produces a dense foliage undergrowth and grows on the taller side of most common winterberries. It could be 7 feet tall and 12 feet wide.
Dwarf Varities of Common Winterberry
Dwarf varieties, as the name implies, grow smaller than the others - usually about 3-5 feet tall maximum. This makes them more ideal for your home gardens that can be located anywhere you desire.
Red Sprite Winterberry Holly (Female)
Red Sprite Winterberry Holly is one example of a dwarf female winterberry. Red Sprite is appreciated for its greenish-white blooms, which decorate the shrub in late spring and early summer, and for its vivid red berries that appear in early autumn and last throughout most of winter.
Jim Dandy (Male)
Jim Dandy is an early-flowering male dwarf winterberry often used to pollinate Red Sprite. Although Jim Dandy produces no berries, as is usual for males, it has shiny green foliage that develops a purplish tint in autumn. Jim Dandy grows to about 4 feet.
Common Winterberry Care
Once your shrubs get rooted, there is very little care involved at all. As with any new planting though, keeping it watered until it's established is very important.
Also, depending on the eventual size you want, you might need to prune it every now and then. It's a slow grower, so pruning should not be a factor in your decision as to whether to plant it or not.
The best time to prune winterberry is late winter or early spring. Pruning encourgages new growth, which means new steps and new flower buds for more flowers. However, be sure to prune it before the new growth has emerged because cutting off any new growth will reduce the number of berries.
Indeed, the most berries are produced on plants that are not pruned, so take that into account when deciding it's planting location. What's more important to you? More berries, or keeping it trimming to a pre-determined size?
Here's a great video filmed at a nursery, so you can see what we've been talking about with the common winterberry varieties.
Are Winterberry Berries Poisonous?
Most of the time when we think of berries, especially those that grow wild, we're always concerned if they can be eaten or are they poisoness. The answer is yes, winterberry berries are poisonous to humans as well as dogs, cats and horses.
However, much wildlife will gorge on the berries, including many species of birds, rabbits, deer and other mammals.
Conclusions About Common Winterberry
The common winterberry and it's many varieties offer a lot for very little effort.
The foliage is that beautiful, glossy green and the berries produce a tremendous show of color when you want it most - during the winter when most other plants are brown and dormant.
We'd highly recommend them.
For more information on winterberry holly, go here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilex_verticillata
For more information on other plants that you can enjoy during the winter, here's a great article.