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. Sharon says:

    The nerve of those birds! Leaving nothing for a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast (for bellies or eyes). Wish I had a long-enough view to enjoy such a feast. I’ll just have to figure one out.

  2. margaret says:

    Thanks for the empathy, Sharon. In a smaller landscape, use varieties like ‘Red Sprite’ (not shown here but smaller and great, with showy fruit), or ‘Shaver’ (shown). Along property line, roadside/fenceline, etc. Three females with a male tucked away behind them or nearby would make a really nice show.

  3. cat says:

    Now you have me wondering . . . My winterberries retain their berries through the winter, and I always assumed it was because the fruit needed to freeze and thaw before it became edible. The birds clean off the Aronia and the Viburnum before they leave, but not the hollies. In fact, I know it’s spring when the returning robins strip them within a few days.

    I’m on Long Island. What might make the difference?

    Oh, and ‘Afterglow’ is on my list. Wow!


  4. margaret says:

    Hi, Cat. Many varieties (especially ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Cacapon’) will hold their fruit a long, long time. Before my place got on the birdmap to this degree, it was the robins and blue jays who stripped the leftover fruit in about February. Sometimes a flock of waxwings then, too.
    Now two things are different: The place is like a beacon from overhead, I guess–so many fruiting trees and shrubs have reached mature size–and the birds’ patterns have also changed during these years. That latter bit is more about climate and habitat change and it’s why I help count winter birds with Project Feederwatch (http://birds.cornell.edu).
    So I suspect a mix of factors has my visitors behaving differently (and also maybe they know something we don’t about the coming winter weather?).

  5. Kaycie says:

    I think I need some winterberries at the back of our big lot against the new fence. Perfect breakfast viewing. Thanks for the idea; it’s one I would never have come up with on my own.

  6. The birds here are not interested in decorative effects either, Margaret – ate all the Beautyberries before fall had officially arrived, and the nandinas are already bare.

    So far the yaupon holly berries are left alone. I was under the impression they had to be frozen before birds would take them, but don’t know it that’s really true. I’m hoping robins will come for the Burford Holly berries in early spring – they’re just coloring up now.

    I love the idea of your garden berries being visible to flocks flying overhead! It reminds me of stories about hoboes making cryptic marks on fence posts to tell friends where the soft touches were located.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  7. margaret says:

    @Cameron: I have seen deer eat winterberries, twigs and all, when in fruit. Then again, I have seen deer eat blue spruces and things with stiff thorns and…EVERYTHING. I think you’d have to put a few strands of wire on posts or some fencing of some kind outside the row of hollies. (Even the thorny evergreen hollies are regularly eaten where deer can get at them, by the way.)

  8. Amy says:

    I can see why you added more of these to your garden. The berries are just fabulous.

    We are gradually planting a hedgerow along one side of our property – for privacy and wildlife. I’ll have to check if there are any winterberries that are hardy to Canadian zone 3a/4b. Thanks so much for sharing these lovely photos!

  9. Helen in CT says:

    Thank you for this post! Do you think the birds have gotten together and decided winterberries are good after all? Mine are gone too.
    I have craved winterberries for many years; I even failed once at a planting. I am now in a small suburban-type house where we planted four in the fall of ’07, carefully placed to be the focus of the winter views from our sunroom.
    The plants have done well; they fruited well and looked fine when we left on a long trip mid-October. When we returned a month later there was an average of one to two berries per bush. I’d been worried something was wrong with the plants themselves; glad to learn it’s just irritating bird behavior.
    We have deer too; they may have contributed.
    Alas, I have just discovered that the receipts from our nurseryman do not include variety. These are large and very red. Likely type?

  10. margaret says:

    Welcome to Amy, Jill O, and Helen.

    @Jill: Glad to have a convert…you will really enjoy them.

    @Amy: Native winterberries are rated zones 3-9 and their range is Nova Scotia and Ontario to Florida and Missouri. Some horticultural varieties display a little less hardiness than the straight species and are rated Zone 4 only. Another factor: Fruit looks and holds best in some extremes of the range, both coldest and warmest, on some varieties better than others.
    So…your local botanical garden or nursery is the best guide to local success stories. I always ask the best nursery in my area what they’ve done well with–with crabapples, for example, fruit on most yellow ones look brown and nasty pretty quick as cold descends, but not ‘Bob White.’ I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t asked a local expert.

    @Helen: Large red fruit could be ‘Cacapon,’ ‘Winter Red,’ ‘Shaver, ‘Red Sprite’ or many others…need description of the shrubs size and habit (upright or more cascading branches) to even guess. Also to tell you need to examine how fruit is arranged–in what sized clusters (three berries, more?) and how close to the main branches and such). These are the various fine points (along with how early or late they flower, which is almost unnoticeable) that help you narrow the ID.

  11. Tammy says:

    How timely. I was just surveying my garden thinking I need a winter berry bush of some kind. I will definitely check out the ‘Red Sprite’. Always enjoy your photos. Thanks.

  12. Thanks for the info on the deer. They don’t usually forage much until February, but they are already sampling everything early this year. I may be the early winter down here. Snow flurries a few times already; more for mid-week. No accumulation, though. My archaeologist son has been digging in the snow-covered ground near Corning, so I can’t complain.


  13. Eric says:

    In a horrible pique of selfishness I cut a large bunch of my Winterberries about two weeks ago and hung them in my shed. In my mind I was justified due the need for decoration with the coming holiday, but I still had guilt because of the birds. We had guests for dinner last night that we won’t see before X-mas so I thought, what the heck, I’m going to decorate now, and I put the whole bunch in a big vase in the center of the table and they are FANTASTIC. My guilt completely vanished ;-) and I’m planning on cutting more just in case… Oh well.

  14. susan says:

    I do not know which one of the winter berries is my favorite, I will certainly be planting a combination of these next year. They did have a nerve leaving you nothing to look at. I have some extra lights if you need them.

  15. Susie says:

    The wintergold berries are my favorite! I wonder if I could find myself bundles of those for my wedding celebration!

    Ever since my hubby proposed to me with a gorgeous diamond engagement ring from http://www.idonowidont.com I’ve wanted a rustic wedding!

    I also think Aurantiaca are so pretty, I must tell my florist about getting something like these, thanks!

  16. margaret says:

    Welcome, Susie. Glad we have another believer in winterberries. Nice to hear from you, and congratulations on the happy news.

  17. Anne says:

    Hi Margaret, great post. I also wrote about bird feeding plants today, but not in great detail, and I appreciate the information you provided!

    The early wipeout of berries makes me wonder if other food sources for the Waxwings have diminshed or disappeared… any change in the routine is alarming, I agree.

  18. Terra says:

    The photo of the winterberry holly shows a strikingly beautiful plant. I am not familiar with them, out here in CA.
    Like you, I consider the birds when I select plants; they love my weeping mulberry.
    co-author of “Scrapbook of Christmas Firsts: Stories to Warm Your Heart and Tips to Simplify Your Holiday”

  19. Jennifer says:

    Walking in the woods two weeks ago, I noted a stand of Russian olives (which also have red berries) and some rose hips from the wild roses that grow in the woods. I went back this week to cut a few modest branches for the house and the bushes were stripped clean of both the Russian olive berries and the rose hips. Maybe it isn’t just winterberries….

  20. margaret says:

    Welcome, Jennifer. Glad you mention this. Guess what? Since I wrote of the rape fo the winterberries, my crabapples have similarly been ravished. Uh-oh. What do the birds know about the weather that’s just ahead?

  21. Lynda says:

    I too, was disappointed to go out to cut my winterberries for Chrismas only to discover completly bare shrubs, not even one berry left. My holly had only a handfull of berries, as did my chokeberry bush. This was my first Christmas without those beautiful red berries.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Lynda. The bad news: no berries for us. The good news: We are really managing some very successful wildlife gardens, aren’t we? :) My other hollies were likewise picked over, as well as my Aronia. All gone. ALl that’s left at this point: the yellow-fruited crabapples, which they leave for very, very last or don’t even eat some years. Thanks for starting the New Year with us, and come back soon.

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