Herb to Know: Winterberry

| December/January 1999

  • Photograph by J.G. Strauch, Jr.

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.

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