Walking in the neighborhood this week, I noticed the beautiful red berries of winterberry on several shrubs planted around the foundation of one of my favorite houses. These folks have a beautiful landscape filled with hardy and native plants that look just right in our northern climate.
For winter interest and bird-feeding beauty, nothing beats winterberry, a native shrub that is hardy throughout Minnesota. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) grows wild on wet forest edges and near wetlands and ponds, so it would do well in a damp spot. It likes an acidic soil — and finding the right spot for them can be a challenge as they prefer a pH level under 6.5. However, if you plant them in the right place and give them a little time, they can be stunning.
The native species grows up to 15 feet tall and is covered in fall and winter with bright red or orange berries. The shrub is a favorite for birders because it provides habitat and food for those birds that spend the winter up North. (Note: The berries are poisonous to humans and pets.) The shrub has a small, cream-colored flower in spring and foliage turns a pleasant yellow-red. Winterberry is not bothered by many diseases and it tolerates pests, such as Japanese beetles, well.
Because of their winter interest and other good characteristics, winterberry has been the subject of quite a bit of breeding efforts. Shorter winterberries, such as ‘Red Sprite,’ ‘Shortcake’ or ‘Goldfinch’. Varieties that produce tons of berries include Berry Heavy™, Wildfire™ or ‘Berry Nice’.
To get the big, red berries in fall and winter, you need to plant a male pollinator plant with winterberries. Most plant tags will list the appropriate male pollinator for the plant, but common pollinators are ‘Jim Dandy’ or ‘Mr. Poppins’.
Whether you are looking for a hedge plant to mark the edge of your property or shrub you can plant in a trio for a striking winter focal point, winterberry is a great option. You can also harvest the berries early for a stunning addition to winter floral arrangements.