The Violet Fern

A Colorful Tale of a Garden in the Making

Going Native: Holly By Golly

5 Comments

I confess I don’t actually have this plant growing in my garden yet, but I will be ordering it for spring delivery. Aside from decking halls, holly is a valuable plant for wildlife. Where I live, hollies associated with the traditional decor of Christmas are not quite hardy. They are also usually European in origin. But the Common Winterberry is native, and it is a holly though it will lose its leaves. In fact its leaves don’t resemble the usual toothy shape of holly leaves at all, but the berries, oh the berries, DO – they appear in bright sprays of red come winter.

Photo by Stefan Bloodworth

And the berries are what the birds relish. Robins tend to stay the winter here and would much appreciate dining on some winterberry. Other birds known to eat winterberry include: Eastern Bluebird, Brown Thrasher, Cardinal, Cedar Waxwing, Chickadee, Northern Flicker, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Song Sparrow, and Wood Thrush. There are over 40 species of bird known to eat its berries. These shrubs also provide cover and nesting sites.

Common Winterberry (also called Black Alder) is the host plant for Henry’s Elfin Butterfly.

My holiday decor has inspired me to write about holly. My decor tends to reflect the magic of the Northern woods. It has confirmed yet again my decision to include Winterberry in my new woodland edge border.

The spot I have in mind will receive unobstructed Southern exposure but will eventually have a canopy of mature Serviceberry and Dogwood trees. The soil tends to stay moist. I will most likely end up planting a cultivar such as ILEX verticillata Oosterwijk. The native Common Winterberry is often not sold sexed. Female Winterberry requires a male to produce berries. There is also a gold colored berry cultivar available, ILEX verticillata Winter Gold. Wouldn’t it be nice to have both colors? I am pretty certain there is not a nearby male for pollination. So if I buy three plant cultivars, I can be certain to have two females and one male for pollinating. If I had more space, I believe I would buy five plants of the Common Winterberry to ensure that I would receive both sexes.

Photos above belong to Bluestone Perrenials but were slightly edited.

So, there is yet another dilemma to going native … true native species, or cultivar? Just how native are you? I believe these cultivars will still offer wildlife value, so in my garden they go.

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Author: Kathy Sturr

Author of the Violet Fern blog, artist, and master gardener.

5 thoughts on “Going Native: Holly By Golly

  1. I'm a big fan of winterberry and would love to be able to grow it. Unfortunately, I don't have anyplace with moist enough soil to support it — so I just have to make do with enjoying the winterberry that grows in damp ditches along the side of the road in my neighborhood. Several years ago, I went on a December tour of old houses in a town not far from here. Many of them were decorated with a combination of pine branches and winterberry in big ceramic containers; they looked stunning. -Jean

  2. I need some berries for the birds. There would be an African holly, Ilex mitis, but it grows along rivers and needs wet feet. So that's out. (Got a 12 days of Christmas picture to share with us?)

  3. I have holly growing but have been thinking about winterberry also. I have a wet spot in my yard or the garden I have around my Dad's pond. I received 2 gift certificates for a local nursery. The winter will be spent deciding what to use them on.

  4. Good Luck VF for this is a great shrub to plant, as long as there is enough moisture. I enjoy it along the road in wet places. I too wish I could grow it in the garden off by itself with a number of females and a male. Tricky but if it works, you will have many happy birds. I want to wish you a Joyous Holiday Season and Many Blessings for the New Year!

  5. Thank you for commenting! I see that we have winterberry fans! Even in Africa. I love to see them in bouquets and window boxes. Here you cannot miss winterberry growing wild along the roadsides. It really stands out. I remember thick stands in Maine as well. Let's hope it grows well and will attract more birds.

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