whither goest my winterberries?

ilex-verticillata1THE BIRDS AND I HAVE A LOT IN COMMON. We are both lightweight, flit nonstop from one thing to another, and can’t get enough winterberry hollies, or Ilex verticillata. Not content with my 35 or so big, old plants, I just added another 20 this fall. Good thing, too, since the birds seem to have told their friends, who told their friends….Welcome to a tale of my disappearing winterberry.

(Note on Gallery: Clicking on a thumbnail gives you a large, higher-quality image.)

Winterberry hollies are native to swampy areas from Canada south to Florida, from Wisconsin and Missouri east.  Despite their heritage in wetlands, I grow my plants in normal to dry soil, at the edges of my hilly outer fields. I just don’t have wet lowland to offer on my windy hillside.

Though they’ll fruit much better in a moist year than a dry one (as with all fruiting plants), winterberries never disappoint. These are durable shrubs best used in mass plantings and in sunny spots where their nondescript spring and summer appearance (twiggy with plain green leaves) won’t be an aggravation. You need to add a male (non-fruiting) for each group of females; certain males pollinate certain varieties, and your nursery can help with the matchmaking.

I don’t put winterberries in the beds right by the house, but use them instead as a long-view item in fall and winter, when the garden is otherwise pretty quiet. I have masses of 8-12 plants each positioned in several directions from key vantage points inside the house, and even at 60 and 100 or more feet away, the fruited groupings “read” as brilliant landscape elements when I am tucked indoors.

Or so the theory goes. Only problem: The birds got a little greedy this year. Normally they start eating in late October, when the winterberry leaves begin to drop, but stagger their feeding frenzies so they they, and I,  have something to savor until well into January. Normally they start with the red fruits, and don’t even think of moving on to the paler orange and golden ones till much later winter.

Not in 2008. In late October and the first week or so of November, I literally watched a large flock of cedar waxwings and another of American robins devour most of my oldest, largest plants’ fruit crops in a matter of days. All colors, not just red. The end.

Maybe they’ve discovered another trove of winter food nearby and staked it out for later sustenance, but I am frankly worried about both of us.  I personally have no backup plan…although some long outdoor extension cords and several dozen strings of those tiny twinkly Christmas lights in red might do the trick.

  1. jayne amico says:

    Thanks for planting native bird sustaining plants like winterberry. Obviously those berries helped very hungry migrating birds! I have added several more winterberries and evergreen holly this fall and the resident mockingbird seems quite pleased with my efforts! :)))) I have robins and waxwings present but have not seen any of them eating the berries just the mockingbird so far, and they are spread out so he cannot defend them all. Our weather has been unseasonably warm!

    If you enjoy the birds please check out my website!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jayne, and will do. Unseasonable here, too, over all, and other than migrants who came through and nibbled here and there, most of my activity will be later, during cold weather when seeds and insects and so on are scarcer, I guess. See you soon again, I hope.

  2. Michael Dodge says:

    Living in Northern Vermont (Zone 4) birds devour most of my berries before Halloween; even Malus floribunda (but they leave other crabapples until spring). So in my winter garden I planted large groups of shrubs with colored stems amongst yellow and blue conifers. I use lots of different Cornus (alba and sericea varieties, unfortunately C. sanguinea vars. (zone 5) turn black in late winter). I also use many willows that come in a wide variety of stem colors and are the easiest plant in the world to propagate and grow (I grow ~250 varieties in my Salley Garden!). I cut down almost all of the colored-stem shrubs to 6-8″ every second year to ensure the brightest colors from the vigorous new growth. My Viburnum dilatatum ‘Michael Dodge’ (Zone 5) have survived 3 winters, but no berries yet! By the way, thanks for the kudos about this hybrid in a recent “Way to Garden” (’twas a deliberate cross I made while workng at Winterthur Gardens) !

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Michael Dodge (not to be confused with the 7 woody creatures up on the hillside here by the same name). I have read about the Winterthur experiments, and the yield of ‘Michael Dodge,’ yes. What a beauty!

      I am just beginning the last 5 years to try more twiggy Salix, and loving some. I am much in need of stooling them and some of my Cornus this next late-winter…always hate to do it, but always glad when I do (well, maybe a few months laterI am glad).

      I am honored at your contribution here and wish that our paths had crossed in person!

  3. Skye says:

    Just curious: do winterberries come in tree varieties and also in bush varieties? I have seen beautiful trees around town that I was told were winterberry holly, but then sometimes photos look as though they are bushes. Is it the pruning or the varieties that make the difference? I think they are beautiful and would like to have some of the trees if I knew which variety to select.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome Skye. Some varieties get quite large, almost like large shrubs/small trees…others are more mounded and shrub-like. So they can be from several feet high to maybe 12 or so? Important to select the right variety first and foremost, then you can also prune as severely as you want. But better to start with a short/tall kind rather than torture one into the other. :)

    2. Carol Migliaccio says:

      My winterberry plants were absolutely gorgeous with a massive amount of berries this fall. I figured I could harvest some branches in the middle of November to use for decorating this Christmas. Early November, I looked at my bushes. There were barely anything left. I am so upset,since I use the berries for decorating since buying them at a nursery is too expensive. When do you suggest I harvest berries before all the birds eat them?

      1. margaret says:

        Hi, Carol. It’s different every year here when the birds swoop in — depending on what else they have to eat, I guess, and the weather and whatever. So I don’t think there is a perfect moment you can count on. I suppose you could cover a portion of the shrub you wish to harvest from for a short time in fall to keep it safe from birds a little longer.

  4. Skye says:

    The ones I’ve noticed around town are the tree variety and they line the sides of some city streets. They are so beautiful in winter with the bright red berries, especially when there is snow on the ground. One thing I did find out about them which surprised me, is that you have to have a male pollinator to get the beautiful red berries. I guess that is logical, but I don’t think I would’ve thought about it if I hadn’t been told. Thanks for the information!

  5. wkeithscott says:

    HI: This reference is timeless. I don’t have room, ie: ‘out-front’ for this 6 berry ensemble, but where U are, I’d die to see the setting. Urban wise, plot..only 50×200 ft, not yds, or furlongs.
    Hardly an spot, in an mature Canuck nice mature 30+yr. garden, so be it! Maybe already too many star’s **here. So, encroaching, on grassy areas, all is left/right@de front. I’ve landscaped, perhaps with too many tonnes of rock, above or below,lg. or small U name it.
    So, the JOY remains, amongst et al, but selective, [beyond me], perhaps suggestions here, by U-mar…maybe 3-4 single Winterberry Hollies, of the six-pack you have high regard. They, will drip to the new curb, then posterior, some yes two-T rocks, then an further posterior, Tri-weeping Katsura pines, all in good health. More in layers, still, before the house.
    But, you have, def… spurred my creative juices…to finish off my ideal. It’s true I never had an creative idea myself, but known creatively, must ‘admit’, get my ideas from such fabulous sources…as this, place yours.
    If, anybody wants an pic…of this entourage of plants, I could send it, but no, ‘winterberries’, in yet…oddly I do have resources, of some 6 Loganberries, out-back.
    Poor, poor,poor spouse…Anne get ur’ gun…so little grass yet, OH! an spot of turf out-back.
    Joy, joy, joy…..all this turmoil….maybe has kept the marriage to-gether for 40 yrs., God Forbid…not even tyme, for an Thanks Giving Turkey, past this Cdn. weekend, finished ‘something else’.
    But, I alway’s await, your column…& sometime, do hit the ‘jackpot of ideas’, this again, appears, merely by accident.
    We shall see,
    Said; Tryptich Path’s Gardens, U say!!!
    Keith Scott +, ‘over the hill’

  6. Elaine says:

    I planted Winterberries a couple of years, they are still pretty small. The male of course has no berries , The female has berries and the other female only has one branch with berries. Its the oddest thing the berries only grow on one branch. Is there a kind of fertilizer I should use on there ? And when is the time to plant new ones ? I live in zone 7

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Elaine. You can plant them anytime the ground can be worked, but I like early spring and again in the fall most of all, so that nature helps me keep them watered. (In the summer it can be so dry, you have to water nonstop so they don’t stress before they have time to root in well.)

      What you are describing is incomplete pollination for some reason — could be weather, or that the male isn’t large enough to have enough pollen for both females yet I suppose (typically you can have one male for a group of three to five females). Or just that it sounds as if the plants aren’t full grown yet.

      I don’t know if this happened just the one year, or each year you’ve had them, and how small they are and so on. Next spring keep a watchful eye for when the tiny white flowers are produced on the females and notice whether the male has his flowers at the same time to make sure you have a good matchup.

      By the way, a dryspell can make fruit abort before its fully grown/ripened. Last year it was dry here and the fruit fell off many of my plants’ branches, so it looked as if they hadn’t set fruit — they had, but just didn’t have the water they needed to ripen it.

  7. Kate Kruesi says:

    Or was Elaine’s second female plant perhaps a “mixed pot” when she purchased it, i.e. a couple plants together, a female and a couple males?? Odd behavior, otherwise.

    Re: deer and winterberry. They are a high fat berry. Adult deer seem to ignore my berries (but browse the shoots later in the winter!!) But the years that twin fawns are born nearby, I have to set reminders to spray my winterberries proactively (Deer Off, Plantskydd). I’ve seen them stand on their hind legs to get at those high density winter calories, twigs and all. The shrubs are not a pretty sight after. . . and I thought they had finally grown above spring deer browsing height!

    Re: birds eating winterberry in the fall, vs. on their return trip from points south, migrating robins ignored this “rule” in my garden, too, . . . until 2 years ago, when I had all the nearby barberry and buckthorn “shrubbery” bulldozed and buried. Now my winterberries no longer seem to be on their “migration itinerary”? Time will tell.

  8. Dahlink says:

    We are considering adding winterberry to a narrow bed between two driveways. I love the photos of “Red Sprite” and “Cacapon,” but I’m told they can’t be bought locally. The recommendations here are for “Winter Red” or “Sparkleberry.” Anyone have any opinions about those, pro or con?

  9. Kate Kruesi says:

    Dahlink should do the necessary research to be sure the appropriate male winterberrys are also purchased for pollination. There is an early male ‘Southern Gentleman’ and a late male ‘Jim Dandy’. Ideally your nursery should be able to tell you which male(s) is/are needed.

    As far as variety selection, there are differences in shrub size and berry color, but if you’re talking red berries, they will “read” the same regardless of variety: lovely zings of scarlet at a time of year “drained of color”, IF the berry eating robins and cedar waxwings aren’t in the vicinity!!

  10. Dahlink says:

    Kate K.–yes, we are aware that we will need an appropriate male, depending on what we chose, but thanks for the reminder.

  11. Joyce K. says:

    Soooo, living in central NH, having had a dry,hot summer, and a heavy presence of American Robins and a deer or two or ten, am I to assume that is why there were virtually no Winterberries to gather along the roadsides,boggy areas, etc. this year to adorn all th beautiful balsam wreaths my fellow garden club members decorated for our town’s historical buildings?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Joyce. Here, too. Fruit aborts for various reasons having to do with environmental stress. My fruit formed (meaning pollination wasn’t interrupted in spring, but took place properly — some years late frost or crazy weather can disturb that) but then it aborted in summer, when the weather was hot and dry over prolonged periods. This year the stressor for you could like the same thing. Depressing — and imagine what the birds and small mammals are up against without all that lipid-rich fruit! Bad.

  12. Clint B. says:

    I love these too. I am making a row of all colors. I ordered some new ones called ‘Berry Heavy Gold.’ People who like these should also check into Ilex decidua ‘Finch’s Golden.’ It’s larger, but the berries are very yellow. Also…Keep in mind that ‘Red Sprite’ gets much larger than they claim. Both of mine are over 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide now. It’s going to require some major pruning to match the size I was promised.

  13. Margot says:

    Help!!! I planted 17 winterberry bushes and some have berries, should I say had berries. My question is when a deer eats the berries, does it cut the twig with its teeth? I’m left with a slew of of twigs underneath the small bush and no berries.

    Thank you.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Margot. Deer don’t bite off the tips of things as much as pull or snap them off when they browse. (They don’t have the right kinds of upper teeth to actually bite through twigs.) They sort of put the branch tip in their mouth and then close their jaw and pull quickly upward, removing fruit as well as some twiggy bits, so the twigs will not be clean-cut as a rabbit or woodchuck would do, but will be raggedy — that’s distinctive to deer browsing. It’s torn, not cut.

      1. margaret says:

        They don’t typically blacken from frost; they stay colorful well into winter here in my northern garden (usually the birds eat them first!). But the ones that hang on are still colorful in like January-February for sure.

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