When you’re out for a drive or a hike in late autumn and winter, your eyes may be caught by displays of shrubby growth bearing bright scarlet berries. This is probably winterberry or Canada holly, Ilex verticillata; also sometimes referred to as coralberry or sparkleberry.
A little botany
Regardless of what you call it, this is a deciduous native shrub that can be found growing wild throughout our region and is related to the so-called English holly (Ilex aquifolium) that many of us grow in our gardens. Unlike that species, winterberry drops its leaves every autumn, which is actually delightful because we’re left with the sights of grey branches festooned with those bright berries. Winterberry generally grows between three and 10 feet (one to three metres) in height, depending on the amount of sunlight it receives and the soil conditions it’s in.
Winterberry makes an excellent ornamental shrub and wildlife habitat for our gardens, being tolerant of so many soil conditions. It’s tough as nails in hardiness to zone three, meaning we can grow it anywhere in Nova Scotia and it’s quite happy with life along the North Shore. It prefers soils that are more acid in nature – similar to rhododendrons, blueberries, and heaths and heathers – and rich in organic matter.
Use in seasonal décor
Often people will cut branches of winterberry to use in their holiday décor, both inside the home and in planters outdoors. Those bright red berries seem to glow when massed in a planter or vase with assorted evergreen branches, the red twigs of dogwoods, and other festive offerings. The berries are pretty much tasteless and inedible to humans, but once they’ve softened up songbirds such as waxwings and robins find them quite irresistible.
You can create a striking indoor table piece using just a couple of stems of winterberry in a flower frog or kenzan; the simplicity of the arrangement is equally striking to an amassed arrangement, and if finding winterberry branches is a challenge, going with the less-is-more idea is always helpful.
There are also alternatives growing in the wild that can be used in lieu of or in complement to winterberry. The invasive and introduced multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) which grows like wildfire along roadsides and in abandoned farmland produces sprays of small red hips on mostly thornless branches. You can harvest all of this that you want. Other options include branches of bona fide wild roses with their larger rose hips, northern bayberry with its grey-blue, waxy berries, and of course, the various cones produced by evergreens like fir and pine.
In the wild, winterberry often grows in thickets along roadsides, in damp areas and near the coast; the shrub is salt tolerant and able to grow in boggy areas with a lot of standing water. If you’re going to harvest some branches, you might want to wear rubber boots or be prepared for wet feet.
If you do decide to harvest some winterberry for décor purposes, please make sure to ask permission before going on private land to cut branches. On public lands such as roadsides, bring a pair of sharp pruners to clip, rather than break, branches; and remember to leave plenty of branches behind to help replenish the plants (and feed wildlife.)
Grow your own
Winterberry is a popular shrub for gardeners, offering food and habitat for songbirds as well as winter interest with that colourful fruit. But it’s also useful in stabilizing a sloped yard area or along the edges of a pond or stream, because of its suckering tendencies. It doesn’t spread as quickly as alder or sumac, and in drier conditions it tends to form tighter clumps than in wet areas.
The most important thing to know about this shrub is that it is dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants. As with English holly, you need both male and female plants to get the colourful fruit. Here’s where a trip to your local nursery is in order, because unless you’re very handy with a magnifying glass, digging up wild plants can be frustrating. Both genders bloom, of course, but the small white flowers are not showy, and it takes a bit of a skilled eye to tell the difference between male and female flowers. Your local nursery carries both genders, and there are some cultivated varieties which are improvements on the native species, having larger and more profuse berries.
As yet, however, there are no plants produced with both male and female flowers, and winterberry is not self-pollinating, so you need the male – and a generous helping hand from native bees and other pollinators.
If you already have berry-producing English holly in your garden, you know you have both male and female plants, and the male will fertilize winterberry too, although not as profusely as a male of the same species.
There are a couple of excellent varieties of “improved” winterberry available at nurseries including the scarlet-berried Berry Heavy and the even more alluring (at least to this gardener) Berry Heavy Gold. A compact male form, Mr. Poppins, is recommended as the pollinator plant. The general rule of thumb is that one male plant will fertilize at least five females if planted within 15 metres (50 feet) of the female shrubs.
We can grow it anywhere in Nova Scotia and it’s quite happy with life along the North Shore. It prefers soils that are more acid in nature – similar to rhododendrons, blueberries, and heaths and heathers.