The Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) is an easy going deciduous native shrub or small tree. It loves sun to part shade and thrives in moist areas. It even tolerates heavy clay soil. It has an interesting architectural structure and good dark green foliage, but winter is when this holly really comes into its own. The stems are covered with brilliant red berries which persist well into March and April. A grouping of winterberries against snow or pale winter skies is stunning. The stems will last in dried arrangements indoors for weeks.
Various cultivars have been selected for size and color. Winter Red is an 8 to 10 foot tree with an amazing number of red berries. It is the faster growing of the species and can be hurried along even further with supplemental water and fertilizer. Red Sprite is a dwarf variety especially suited to the perennial or shrub border where it reaches only 3 to 5 feet.
Winterberries require a male pollinator for the female to produce berries. Only a botanist could identify them in the wild, but cultivated varieties are readily available. Jim Dandy pollinates early season bloomers such as Red Sprite or Berry Heavy. Southern Gentleman takes care of late bloomers such as Winter Red or Sparkleberry. One male can pollinate up to five female plants. Since they do not produce showy flowers or berries, they can be tucked into the back or the edge of the garden. Bees are the primary pollinators for winterberries, so place your males in sight of the females no more than 50 to 100 feet away. (Bees find their way by sight and smell.) And of course protect and encourage your bee population.
Winterberries are dwindling in the wild as their habitat is destroyed, so it is heartening to see these great native plants appearing in our gardens.