Many of us are now decking our houses and yards with lights and decorations, including coniferous pine, spruce, and fir trees, to brighten up this dark time of year. Long ago, some ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over doors and windows to keep away evil spirits and illness.
Hollies have long been associated with holiday decorations. The Druids believed holly had magical powers that could give eternal life. The plant they used was English Holly (Ilex aquifolium), one of the “evergreen” species that keeps its waxy leaves through the winter. Although native to Europe, it has escaped cultivation in the United States and has naturalized both in northeastern Massachusetts and on the West Coast.
Similar to European Holly is our native American Holly (Ilex opaca). Its red berries and glossy leaves, are associated with holiday decorations. Although native to much of the eastern United States, American Holly is found along the coast in Connecticut and reaches the northern limit of its range in the eastern part of the state, in Massachusetts, and in Rhode Island. However, it has been widely planted elsewhere.
American Holly can suffer from lots of plant diseases and issues, including fungal root rots, tar spot, leaf scorch, powdery mildew, and chlorosis. Instead, why not plant a species of holly that loses its leaves in winter, to better show off its bright red fruit and also attract a host of birds? Plant our native Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a much better and hardier alternative.
In the wild, Winterberry grows as a small understory tree or large shrub in forested wetlands and edges of ponds and streams. It prefers rich, moist soils, but it grows easily in different soil conditions in part to full sun.
Winterberry is dioecious (Greek for “two houses”), with separate male and female plants, each with its own type of flower. To successfully produce fruit, plant one male plant near female plants. Bumblebees will take pollen from the male flowers and fertilize the female flowers.
Winterberry fruit is not a true berry, but a drupe, a fleshy fruit surrounding a single seed, like a cherry. Be careful when decorating with winterberries around young children and pets. The fruit contains saponins, which can be toxic.
Winterberries, however, are not toxic to birds. The berries are irresistible to a variety of species, such as the American Robin (Turdus migratorius), Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis), Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus), Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), and many more. Birds often don’t take advantage of winterberries right away, but will wait for harsh weather. I have a fond memory of seeing a flock of bluebirds descending on a fruiting Winterberry in a blizzard. It was a patriotic flurry of red, white, and blue.
I always recommend planting wild, straight native species rather than cultivars whenever possible. The straight species are the plants that wildlife has co-evolved with. Ask your local nursery whether it carries straight species. If not, check out native plant nurseries in your state. Be aware that some Winterberry cultivars have been bred to have large fruits, which birds don’t like. Also, different cultivars have different bloom times, so if you plant cultivars you need to know which to pair. One good pairing is the female ‘Winter Red’ with the male ‘Southern Gentlemen.’
So, bring some vibrant color into your yard. It’ll serve double duty by feeding beautiful birds at the same time.