When the holiday lights come down and the gray days of January settle in, there’s not much color to enjoy in the landscape — unless you plan ahead. Though flowers can’t survive the cold of midwinter, a few fruits can brighten up your garden with a pop of color. Winterberries are a North American native that are covered in bright, red berries during even the coldest months. They are tasty treats for local birds, so the added boost of color will also give you the added bonus of a bright cardinal or blue Jay to feast in your backyard.
Planting winterberry along the driveway or in a spot where you can enjoy it from your living room windows will add some much-needed cheer to the dark days of January around your home. Here’s how to get the most out of this beautiful shrub.
Growing Zones: 3-9, depending on variety
Bloom Time: Flowers in spring; bright red berries all winter
Exposure: Full sun to part shade
Mature Size: Five to 12 feet tall and up to five feet in diameter, depending on variety
Notes: Winterberry is a deciduous variety of Holly. Its leaves are green in the summer but turn chartreuse or yellow in fall before dropping. Red berries cover the length of its branches throughout fall and winter. Spring flowers are tiny and white with greenish-yellow centers. Though winterberry is a prized food source for local birds, the berries are poisonous to humans and pets.
Growing Winterberry in the Landscape
Winterberry is naturally found in moist, boggy areas, where it grows as an understory plant. For it to do well in your landscape, look for a level spot where water isn’t likely to run off. Winterberry does well in partial shade, though it will handle full sun in the winter as well. It can also tolerate a bit of road salt, so it’s a good choice near driveways or as a roadside hedge.
Like Holly, winterberry is a dioecious plant, meaning that it comes in both male and female varieties. In order for your attractive female plants to become laden with berries, they’ll need to be pollinated by a male plant. For best results, plant one male for every five females, and be sure that it’s within 50 feet of the female plants.
In early autumn, dig a hole about as deep as your plant’s root ball but two to three times as wide to encourage winterberry roots to spread. Place the plant in the hole with the top of the root ball even with the soil line. Backfill the hole with a mixture of soil that’s been amended with 20 percent compost. Press firmly in place and water deeply.
Winterberry should receive at least one inch of rainfall each week; water it well if you’re having a dry autumn. Continue tracking irrigation until the plant loses its leaves, at which point it is dormant and requires no further care until spring.
Ongoing Care for Winterberry
Winterberry generally thrives wherever its placed, but does best with rich soil. A mulch of compost in the spring will help it stay moist and nourished throughout the growing season. For the best growth, winterberry prefers moist, acidic soil, but it only needs to be watered during dry spells. In most years, average rainfall is sufficient once established.
Winterberry doesn’t require pruning, but you can shape the plant and cut out broken or dead branches in early spring, before it begins to put on new growth. It’s also fine to cut branches of berries to brighten up your home during the winter months: Simply place branches in a vase filled with a few pebbles of sand and enjoy!
*Images courtesy of Shutterstock and the Delaware Nature Society