Few herbs are at their handsomest after their leaves have fallen. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a notable exception. A mass of winterberry shrubs covered with scarlet fruits can bring cheer to the dreariest winter landscape, and in some parts of the country, the fruit-laden, leafless branches are marketed as Christmas decorations.
The genus Ilex comprises the hollies, consisting of some 400 species of trees, shrubs, and climbers native to temperate and tropical regions throughout the world. About fifteen species are native to North America. Although the word “holly” typically evokes glossy, prickly, evergreen foliage studded with shiny, bright red berries, the leaves of many hollies, winterberry among them, are neither prickly nor evergreen.
This slow-growing, rounded shrub or small tree is native to swamps and other wet areas of northeastern North America, ranging from Newfoundland south to Florida and west to Minnesota and Missouri.
The dark green simple, alternate, ovate leaves have small teeth, are smooth and slightly glossy above and slightly fuzzy below, especially on the veins. There is little fall color.
The four- to seven-parted white flowers are minute, less than 1/4 inch across, and borne singly or in small clusters in the leaf axils. A single male plant can pollinate ten to twenty females. It should be planted within 50 feet of the females but need not be part of the same grouping.
Each 1/4- to 1/2-inch round, fleshy fruit surrounds two to seven pyrenes. The fruits ripen in early fall, becoming more dazzling when the leaves drop in late fall, and may persist all winter.
The longevity of the fruits in winter depends on the presence and appetite of local bird populations. A flock of cedar waxwings can strip a good-size winterberry shrub in a matter of minutes. Brown thrashers, robins, bluebirds, mockingbirds, and catbirds are also known to enjoy the fruits.
Some botanists recognize two regional types. The northern type has light brown bark and small, broad oval leaves 1 to 3 inches long; flowers earlier; and may be more drought tolerant. Shrubs of the southern type are faster growing and have dark bark and leaves 4 inches long or longer.
‘Red Sprite’, a large-fruited dwarf cultivar of the northern type, and Winter Red, a patented selection of the southern type, are highly recommended among the red-fruited cultivars available. ‘Sparkleberry’, a cross of winterberry with Japanese winterberry (I. serrata), grows fast and holds its red berries well. ‘Jim Dandy’ is a male clone recommended as a pollinator for the earlier-flowering ‘Red Sprite’; ‘Southern Gentleman’ is a pollinator for Winter Red and ‘Sparkleberry’. The several yellow- or orange-fruited forms are reputed to be less attractive to birds. Although the southern types are not restricted to the South, the northern types have been found to perform significantly better in areas where winters are severe.
The generic name, Ilex, refers to the resemblance of the leaves to those of Quercus ilex, an evergreen oak native to the Mediterranean. Verticillata, Latin for “whorled,” refers to the arrangement of the flowers in the leaf axils.
Winterberry has had limited use as a medicinal herb. Native Americans drank a bark tea as an “emetic for craziness,” a tonic, and a remedy for diarrhea. They used a root preparation to ease hay fever symptoms. The bark has also been used internally to treat fevers, internal parasites, and liver ailments, and externally to treat skin disorders, especially when combined with slippery elm bark. No scientific studies support these uses.
The leaves, when dried and crumbled, may be used to make a beverage tea. Unlike several other hollies, including yaupon (I. vomitoria) and yerba maté, (I. paraguariensis), whose tea contains significant amounts of caffeine, winterberry’s has none.
Winterberries are effective in the landscape as specimen plants, in groups, or in informal hedges. The dwarf cultivar ‘Red Sprite’ may be placed in front of a hedge, a clump of taller shrubs, or a building foundation.
Winterberry likes moist, humusy, acid soil of pH 4.5 to 6.5. Unlike many other herbs, it tolerates wet feet. The common name black alder suggests its resemblance to another swamp dweller of the same name, Alnus glutinosa.
For medicinal use, the twigs are harvested in spring and the bark stripped off and dried. Plants cultivated for the commercial production of berried branches are harvested in fall on a three-year rotation.
Winterberry is nearly disease-free; the foliage may become disfigured by leaf spots or powdery mildew, but these are considered minor problems.
Plants expand by suckering but are not invasive. Softwood cuttings taken in early summer root readily when dipped in rooting hormone, stuck in potting soil, and misted periodically.
• Forestfarm, 990 Tetherow Rd., Williams, OR 97544-9599; (541) 846-7269; catalog $4. Ilex verticillata and cultivars ‘Afterglow’, ‘Aurantiaca’, ‘Autumn Glow’, ‘Cacapon’, ‘Jim Dandy’ (male), ‘Maryland Beauty’, ‘Red Sprite’, ‘Southern Gentleman’ (male), ‘Winter Gold’, Winter Red; hybrids ‘Apollo’ (male), ‘Bonfire’, ‘Harvest Red’, ‘Sparkleberry’.
• Roslyn Nursery, 211 Burrs Ln., Dix Hills, NY 11746; (516) 643-9347; e-mail email@example.com; catalog $3. I. verticillata cultivars ‘Cacapon’, ‘Jim Dandy’, ‘Red Sprite’, ‘Southern Gentleman’, ‘Winter Gold’, Winter Red; hybrid ‘Sparkleberry’.