Mention holly during the month of December and we all think of cut holly branches adorning homes during Christmas season. But our native holly, called winterberry or Ilex verticillata, is just as ornamental outdoors in our early winter landscapes because of its colorful and abundant fruit (Photo 1).
Winterberry is native throughout the eastern United State (Photo 2) and in Minnesota it is usually found growing in forested wetlands in the eastern half of the state along with larch, willows, and speckled alder. You may also see it growing along lakeshores and ponds or in acidic sandy soils with high water tables.
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Plants Database
Photo 2: Native range of Ilex verticillata
Although there are over 400 species of holly (Ilex spp.) worldwide, less than a dozen species are commonly used as landscape plants. Winterberry is one of these species. Approximately 35 cultivars have been selected within the species for fruit color (red, orange, and gold), fruit size and abundance, and compact plant size.
Winterberry cultivars range in size from 4-10 feet in the landscape. Small, inconspicuous flowers are produced from mid-June to early July. Winterberry's dark green foliage provides a beautiful backdrop to the brightly colored fruit that become showy in September. After leaves drop, the fruit will continue to light up a winter garden until birds find and eat it.
Winterberry is an easy plant to grow in light or heavy soils. Because it is native to swampy areas, it does well in wet conditions. It does prefer acidic soils with a pH between 4.5 and 6.5; chlorosis will develop in high pH soils. The other important fact to remember is that winterberry is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. Besides planting a female cultivar that will produce the showy fruit, you must also plant a male plant whose pollen will be produced at the appropriate time to pollinate the flowers on your female cultivar that will later develop into the fruit. Two male cultivars are available at garden centers: the early blooming 'Jim Dandy' and the later blooming 'Southern Gentleman'. Plant labels and garden center staff can help you select the appropriate male cultivar for your fruiting female cultivar.