Winter can be a dark and gloomy season, especially in the coldest states, with little to see in the garden. We tend to plant trees and shrubs that will flower and be interesting in spring and summer, without thinking of that forgotten winter season where the smallest sign of life can be a joy. There are a number of plants with brightly colored winter twigs, such as the Red Twig Dogwood or the Yellow Twig Dogwood, but berries provide the most reliable way to have winter color from late fall almost to spring.
The bright red berries of evergreens like the Red Holly are well-known and it comes as a surprise to many people to learn that there is also a holly that loses it leaves in winter, so that the red berries are much showier and brilliant against the bare twigs. The bare branches of the Winterberry are smothered in bright red berries all winter long. It makes a brilliant display against snow as well as against the green background of warmer areas. It makes a rounded shrub five to eight feet tall, and about five feet wide, with dark-green leaves all summer. It grows at a moderate rate and soon becomes a strong feature in your garden and is a great choice for background planting in groups or running along a path or fence.
The Winterberry will grow happily in any normal garden soil that is not too dry, but it grows even better in those damp places that defeat most other garden plants. If you have a pond or stream, or low-lying areas that hold water, then this bush will thrive in those locations. Since these conditions also suit the Red Twig Dogwood and the Yellow Twig Dogwood too, you can create an attractive winter landscape along your stream or around that pond, making a seasonal highlight in your garden. Since this is a native plant it can also be used in wild and semi-wild gardens where it will fit right into the natural landscape. It has no significant pests or diseases, so it will grow well with very little attention from you.
The Winterberry, Ilex verticillata, is an American native plant that grows naturally throughout the east from Newfoundland, Canada all the way south to Alabama. In the wild it is usually found in wetlands, marshes and alongside streams and rivers, but in gardens it will grow in any normal soil. It is a deciduous relative of the evergreen holly trees that are so valuable as hedges and foundation plantings in almost every garden. It has glossy, dark-green leaves up to four inches long, with small teeth along the edges. It naturally forms a dense shrub with many slender branches. In summer tiny white flowers are produced which will hardly be noticed, but by fall these will have developed into red berries which look exactly like the familiar holly-berries of the Christmas season. Winterberry branches can be cut and used for festive decoration inside or outside your home.
Because it is hardy in even the coldest zones of the country, this plant is especially useful in those areas, where other garden plants will not survive. Since it also grows well in all the warmer regions too, this is a plant that everyone can grow and enjoy. Choose a sunny or partially-shady location for your Berry Heavy Winterberry. In hotter areas and in drier soil, afternoon shade is preferable. This plant will grow in all kinds of soil from sand to clay, but it does need moisture and is not especially drought resistant.
For group planting allow three to five feet between plants. The wider spacing is best if you are planting in wet soil where this shrub will grow wider and larger. Organic mulch over the root zone will help to conserve moisture and in poor soil should be renewed each spring for the first few years until your plants are well established.
Pruning is not really required, but if you need to reduce the size of your plant a little, prune in late winter or early spring. Branches can be removed for decoration in winter and this is often all the pruning needed. For maximum berry production, plant a mixture of male and female plants near each other. You only need one male plant to about eight female plants to get a good berry crop.
The Winterberry is a very popular plant for winter display and as a source of berries for the holiday season, so although we constantly receive new stock, the demand is high. Order some now to brighten your garden in winter, while supplies last.