When most people picture hollies, they see shrubs with glossy, toothed, evergreen foliage. They may consider planting them for winter interest in their landscapes because of that lovely evergreen foliage. But I prefer Ilex verticillata, commonly called winterberry.
Winterberry is a holly that grows to a different beat of its family's traditions. It drops its leaves in fall, revealing branches lined with brilliantly colored berries.
Winterberry is a native shrub that is often found growing along streams and in damp woodlands. Plants may remain as short as 4 feet or grow as tall as 15 feet and in natural areas. They spread by suckers to form large colonies.
Although winterberry prefers moist soil in the wild, it adapts easily to average garden soil and rarely suffers damage from insects or diseases. Growing winterberry in drier soil will decrease its tendency to sucker. Plants may develop chlorosis, however, if grown in very alkaline soil.
Winterberry requires very little maintenance. In fact, pruning them will reduce the number of flowers and berries produced by plants. Only very old branches should be removed in early spring if necessary.
The flowers of winterberries are small, greenish-white and unimpressive. They bloom in late spring or early summer.
It is their berries that give the winterberry its claim to fame. Only female flowers produce them but male flowers are necessary for pollination. Each male winterberry can pollinate up to 5 or 6 females as long as they are within about 50 feet. Pollinated female flowers become bright red berries in late summer or early autumn.
The magnificent berries are not preferred by songbirds so they remain on the plant through much of the winter to the delight of gardeners. They are an important food source, however, when other resources have been exhausted.
Plant winterberry shrubs where their winter show can be appreciated. They are perfectly suited for shrub borders, foundation plantings or wildlife gardens. Include them in a large container garden where their berried branches can be the thriller in a design of greens.
There are several varieties available at local garden centers.
The Berry Heavy series features plants with very large berries in either red or gold. Berry Poppins is a compact cultivar with bright red berries that grows up to 4 feet tall and slightly wider. Her mate for pollination, Mr. Poppins, is the same manageable size.
Little Goblin is another dwarf variety with large, bright red berries. It grows 3 to 5 feet tall and wide. You can guess the color of berries presented on Little Goblin Orange. This winterberry is a bit shorter, topping out at 4 feet. Little Goblin Guy is the man for both of these ladies.
Red Sprite grows 3 to 4 feet tall and boasts red berries. Jim Dandy is her pollinator and grows up to 6 feet tall and wide.
At 6 to 8 feet tall, Winter Red and Southern Gentleman could team up at the back of shrub borders or in privacy hedges sporting brilliant red berries. Or partner Southern Gentleman with Winter Gold if orange berries are preferred on a 10-foot tall shrub.
Check out the view from a favorite window for viewing winter snow. Now, imagine that view with the addition of berry-covered branches. And now, add the cultivar appropriate for the space on your 2018 must-have plant list.
• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist, garden writer and the garden center manager at The Planter's Palette in Winfield. She blogs at gardenwithdiana.com.