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Winterís Fiery Gems
Add Sparkle to Your Late Season Garden
by by Rick J. Lewandowski, Director, Mt. Cuba Center - 12/6/2010
With occasional frosty mornings over the past few weeks, colorful leaves now carpet the ground in a kaleidoscope of colors, signaling that it’s time for leaf rakes to replace the garden hoe as the growing season comes to a close.
With bare branches, fading light, and a definite chill in the air, it’s surely time to put the garden to bed, right? Well, let’s not be too hasty! This could be the perfect time of year to bring color to your garden and ignite some late season interest.
What are we talking about? Late autumn and winter can be the perfect time of year to enjoy the “fruits” of a year’s worth of gardening labor both figuratively and literally. Among the most delightful plants to incorporate into your garden for winter fruit display is winterberry or winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), one of our finest native shrubs.
Unlike other native evergreen hollies such as American holly (Ilex opaca) and inkberry holly (Ilex glabra), winterberry displays abundant, clusters of red, orange or yellow fruit on leafless stems through much of the winter. This feature makes for striking displays of fruit unrivaled by virtually any other plants in the winter garden.
Winterberry grows naturally in wetland communities throughout the eastern half of the U.S. In fact, this is a perfect time of year to see it fruiting in moist places along roadsides, in coastal wetlands habitats, in bogs and along streams throughout Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey.
Winterberry has the interesting capacity to thrive in poorly drained, oxygen-deprived soils—perfect for those wet areas some of us have in our gardens. Better yet, gardeners have discovered that this holly grows almost as happily in well-drained and dry garden conditions. Winterberry is truly a versatile plant for the landscape.
Dozens of winterberry cultivars have been selected for fruit color, fruit size, fruit density, and fruit retention. In addition, cultivars have been selected for their form, ranging from spreading to upright and even dwarf forms.
My short-list of favorite winterberry hollies include ‘Maryland Beauty’ (compact habit, large bright red fruit), ‘Red Sprite’ (dwarf, large red fruit), ‘Scarlett O’Hara’ (spreading habit, bright red fruit), ‘Winter Gold’ (spreading, coarse habit, large glossy, golden peachy colored fruit), and Winter RedÒ (upright habit, intense red fruit on dark stems). But don’t stop here. Virtually all the winterberry cultivars are garden worthy candidates. Find one that fits the personality of your garden.
Remember, winterberry, like all hollies, has distinct female (fruiting) plants and male (pollen-bearing) plants. In order to obtain optimal fruit displays on female plants, it is necessary to have a male plant growing nearby. Select a male cultivar that blooms at the same time as the female cultivar to insure the best fruit-set.
Some male cultivars include ‘Jim Dandy’ (pollinates ‘Maryland Beauty’ and ‘Red Sprite’), ‘Rhett Butler’ (yes--it pollinates ‘Scarlett O’Hara’) and ‘Southern Gentleman’ (pollinates Winter Red® and ‘Winter Gold’). One male winterberry is usually sufficient to pollinate several female winterberry hollies as long as the plants are within several feet of each other.
Generally speaking, winterberry produces the most prolific fruit displays in full sun to light shade. While it can grow in shady conditions, winterberry produces few fruit and is less attractive, becoming a loose, open and scraggly shrub.
Though found naturally growing in acid soils, winterberry is tolerant of soil pH around 6.8 or so. Under these conditions, it ranges from 4’ tall (‘Red Sprite’) to 9’ tall (Winter RedÒ) with lots of variation in between depending upon the cultivar. Winterberry is versatile in landscape for use as a specimen, in masses, or grown for cut-branch use in winter arrangements.
In general, winterberry is a multi-stemmed irregularly shaped deciduous shrub. The fall foliage color of winterberry ranges from little to none, though some cultivars occasionally develop yellowish-green, bronzy or orange fall color.
Winterberry fruit is typically considered a low feeding preference for wildlife in early winter, remaining attractive and undisturbed on plants, often well into the New Year. After the coldest part of winter, however, birds and other wildlife including squirrels begin to eat the fruit. Robins, cedar waxwings, thrushes, catbirds, flickers and brown thrashers are just a few birds that find winterberry a delectable late winter treat.
Winterberry can produce outstanding displays of fruit on its branches for several years without significant maintenance. Even so, pruning plants regularly keeps them young and vigorously growing.
Once a winterberry is five to seven years old, cut one-fifth to one-quarter of the oldest stems back to the ground each year. This insures that the oldest stems on the winterberry will be about five years old. Your efforts will be rewarded with a vigorous multi-stemmed shrub that continues to produce huge volumes of fruit each year--as long as you’ve planted that male companion nearby to insure good pollination!
Winterberry like many deciduous shrubs is quite adaptable and can be planted as long as the soils remain friable and there is no frost in the ground. Since any root growth would be minimal at this time of year, it's important to insure that soils are not wet. If you wish to find a winterberry to plant in your garden, go to Mt Cuba Center’s web site and look under Mt Cuba Center "gardening resources" tab, where you'll see several nursery sources.
There’s no doubt that winterberry is a versatile plant with excellent winter garden appeal. If you plant this shrub in your garden,I’m sure it will bring a fiery sparkle to your winter landscape for many years to come.