Red Sprite™ Winterberry HollyIlex verticillata 'Red Sprite'
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Ilex verticillata 'Red Sprite'
Outdoor Growing zone
Full Sun, Partial Sun
The Red Sprite Winterberry is a native shrub and a deciduous holly bush, with the famous red berries, but on bare branches. It has a broad, compact form with small glossy leaves that are rich green, turning yellow and sometimes red in fall. The tiny white flowers hidden among the leaves become red berries that decorate your garden in fall and through winter with bright splashes of color. Grow it in beds, beside water, along the edges of woodlands, and in wild gardens.
The Red Sprite Winterberry grows best in full sun or partial shade, but it takes some light full shade as well. Moist, acid soils are best, but ordinary garden soil is fine, as long as it is not too dry. It is usually free of pests and diseases, deer don’t bother it too much, and it needs no special care or detailed pruning. For a good berry crop plant a Jim Dandy Winterberry nearby, using one male for no more than 10 Red Sprite Winterberry bushes.
Everyone knows and loves holly berries, those iconic red clusters and spiny leaves that are essential for traditional Christmas celebrations. Sadly, almost all those holly bushes are limited by our cold winters, and in the north they will not grow. But America has its own holly bushes – not evergreen and spiny, but deciduous. They still have red berries though, and these cluster densely along the bare twigs in fall and winter. They too are great for Christmas decoration, and they also add interest to bare northern gardens, glistening against the snow, or jumping out from the dark background of winter earth. This native bush is usually called winterberry, and wild plants can be tall, taking up a lot of room in the garden. That’s fine if you do have lots of room, but for most gardens we want something smaller and more compact. That’s why we recommend the Red Sprite Winterberry, a lovely compact bush carrying a heavy crop of red berries for months during the dullest days. Don’t pass up holly just because you live in cold areas, and don’t pass up winter color wherever you garden – this easy-care shrub is a real winner, and a terrific low-maintenance garden shrub.
The Red Sprite Winterberry is a compact deciduous shrub with a broad, spreading form, reaching between 4 and 6 feet tall and up to 8 feet wide. It is slower growing, so it will take some years to reach these dimensions. Many branches grow from the ground, making this a dense and bushy plant. It has a very twiggy habit, with many short side branches on the longer stems. The broad oval leaves are usually no more than 2 inches long, and only very slightly leathery, not resembling the classic spiny holly leaf at all. They are glossy and mid-green, turning bright yellow in fall, sometimes with red tones as well.
After the new leaves sprout out in spring, look closely among them. Around the beginning of May you will see small greenish-white flowers in clusters all along the branches. You probably won’t notice how they develop into clusters of tiny green berries over the summer months, but once the leaves fall you will be delighted to see the branches densely covered in many clusters of bright red, ½-inch diameter berry, making a brilliant display against the smooth, light-gray stems. These berries last on the tree for months, brightening your winter garden. They can be cut and placed in vases indoors, where they last for a long time, or mixed into wreaths with evergreen branches.
Holly trees are unusual, because male and female flowers are found on separate bushes. Obviously the Red Sprite Winterberry is a female tree, and she needs companionship to make her berries. For a good crop you need to grow male bushes with it, and these need to be of the right variety. Females bloom at different times, and since this bush is early flowering, it needs an early flowering male. The recommended variety is the Jim Dandy Winterberry, and it is best to plant one male bush for every 5 to 10 female bushes. Bees will move the pollen from that ‘pollinizer’ bush to your Red Sprite bushes.
This bush is an attractive green plant in spring and summer, and it looks attractive in fall too. Of course the red berries are the big draw, so plant it where they can be enjoyed during the winter months. It is happy in any garden bed, and also along a stream, by a pond, around wooded areas and in natural gardens of native plants. Its compact form makes it ideal for smaller gardens or for mass planting in big beds.
The Red Sprite Winterberry has an amazing tolerance of different climates, and it grows just as well in zone 3 as it does in zone 9.
Tolerant of a different light levels, your Red Sprite Winterberry bushes will bloom and berry best in full sun or with some partial shade. They will also grow well in shady spots, but fruiting may be reduced. This bush grows well in most soils, preferring damp and even wet ground, and acid soils with plenty of organic material added to them. Wet places can be hard to fill, so this is a great choice. It also grows well in ordinary garden soils, but not in dry, very sandy places, or in very alkaline, chalky soils.
Like many native plants, this bush is normally not bothered by deer, who might at worse take a few nibbles. It is rarely bothered by pests or diseases and it’s easy to grow. With its compact form it rarely needs pruning. Once your bushes are 5 years old you could start taking a few of the oldest branches out in spring to encourage new growth and keep your bushes vigorous. Otherwise, nothing is needed to succeed with this easy plant.
The winterberry, Ilex verticillata, is an American native shrub, found growing from Newfoundland to Alabama, in swamps, along streams and in damp woods. Like other hollies, all parts are mildly toxic.
The Simpson Nursery Company, in Vincennes, Indiana, is one of the oldest family nurseries still operating in the country, and their specialty is winterberries. Robert Simpson, who ran the nursery from 1968, bred many new varieties, including one that was at first called ‘Nana’. Later it was officially registered with the name ‘Red Sprite’.
Often overlooked, winterberry are great plants for all gardens, but especially valuable in cold zones. The Red Sprite Winterberry is perfect for smaller spaces, and famous for its heavy crops. Order now, as these top-quality varieties are so much better than wild plants, and they sell out very quickly.