New England’s holly: Brightening our gardens when the days are shortest

The holly of my childhood was the “Christmas card holly,” with fat red berries and shiny spiny leaves that stayed green all winter long.
I can still recall a row of enormous holly bushes (presumably the English holly, Ilex aquifolium) along the back fence of my parents’ garden. Each December, we would cut branches for Christmas decorations, carefully placing a holly sprig above every picture in the house. But, as a child, I hated these huge shrubs; they exuded a dark, gloomy look and their prickly dead leaves littered the ground.
Actually the holly family (all the plants starting with the Latin name Ilex) is huge — with over 400 species of trees and shrubs that inhabit woodlands all over the world. So, back in the 1950s, New York plant hybridist Kathleen Meserve worked on crossing various species, resulting in a line of smaller evergreen hollies, called Ilex x meserveae in her honor, including the well-known China Girl holly (and its male counterpart China Boy), which eventually grow to about eight feet high.
But, unless you live in the warmest part of the state (with a hardiness rating of Zone 5), the spiny, broad-leaved hollies may not survive our Vermont winters. And, even then, they need a sheltered spot that provides protection from the winter sun and wind.
New England’s holly is different
Winterberry or Ilex verticillata, is a type of holly that is native to New England and, needless to say, it comes though our winters beautifully.
Winterberries, as their name suggests, have bright red berries that grace the plants in wintertime.
But, unlike the familiar “Christmas card holly,” winterberries are deciduous. This means, as a defense against our normally colder winters, they lose their leaves in winter, all the better to show off their abundant berries against the snow.
These berries are a rich source of food for the birds in the coldest part of the year when they need it most and, for us humans, they create a wonderful symbol of the season.
Wild winterberries
Winterberries — also known as black alder — grow wild in damp spots throughout New England. As you drive around, check out the winterberry colonies in the Cornwall Swamp along Route 30, and in the boggy spot alongside Route 73 near the Brandon police station. For most of the year they are nothing more than a tangled nondescript jumble of branches, but in October they emerge from the shadows as millions of red berries glisten in the low afternoon sun while creating a veritable feast for the birds.
Taming the jumble: domesticated winterberries
We probably would not want the messy-looking wild winterberries around our homes. But here again plant breeders have worked to develop a range of elegant winterberries for our gardens, which grow well in moist locations in sun or part shade.
As in the wild, our garden winterberries come out of the shadows in the fall, just as the days are shortening and the rest of the garden is going quietly dormant in preparation for winter. During the summer winterberry bushes create a presentable low-key green backdrop for flowers. Then in early October the fruit fattens up and turns red. At this point their leaves gradually become yellow before dropping off entirely, leaving those lovely red berries on full display, even into January and February, when they are nothing short of spectacular against the mid-winter snow.
In the garden winterberries work well when planted in groups of three or more, as it seems to make their fruit look more dramatic. Most varieties are slow growing, but some will eventually become quite large. So check the information supplied by the nursery and space your plants accordingly!
It is also very important to realize that (as with almost all species of Ilex) winterberries are dioecious, meaning that the male and female flowers are borne on different plants, with the wind carrying the pollen from the male to the female plants. So, for your female bushes to set fruit, you must plant a compatible male, meaning a variety that flowers at the same time, in a nearby spot. Again, if you buy your plants from a good nursery with knowledgeable staff, they will be able to tell you which varieties go together.
A winterberry hedge
I wanted to create an informal hedge around the corner of our driveway where we park our cars. So about 10 years ago I planted three Ilex verticillata “Winter Red” plants along both sides of the L-shaped bed for a total of six female bushes, each of which has grown into an elegant vase-shaped shrub, about eight feet across and eight feet high. Then in the angle between the two sides I added one compatible male plant, “Southern Gentleman,” which, like “Winter Red,” flowers in June.
For a small garden, the cultivar “Red Sprite” — growing just three feet high and wide — would be an excellent choice. A group of five shrubs would look nice, with the compatible male “Jim Dandy” in the center.
The controlling gardener
Nothing beats the picture the winterberries, with their bare branches covered with brilliant red fruit, set off against a fresh January snow. So I really want to be sure my bushes still have their berries by that time.
I think of myself as a “wildlife friendly” gardener. But I also resent wild creatures helping themselves to all the fruits of my labors, most especially to the berries on my carefully tended bushes closest to the house.
Unfortunately sometimes in November the robins gather in large flocks, eager to fill their bellies in preparation for their coming migration and they especially seem to enjoy the winterberry fruit. They are more than welcome to partake of winterberries growing near our pond, but I draw the line at those around the house.
However, scaring off a crowd of determined thieving robins can be quite a challenge, and over the years I tried many approaches, with little success.
I started out by tying paper plates, with round “eyes” painted in the middle, to the bushes. Then I floated four “Evil Eye” balloons above the bushes. After all the eyes failed, I set a fake owl on a post in the middle of the bushes — to no avail.
After that I turned to making noise. Certainly banging a yogurt container against a garbage can lid will send the robins flying, but I still had to run outside every time they returned.
Finally, Dick had the brilliant idea of activating the car horn remotely from the house!
The car horn now works as our remote-controlled bird scarer.
And, each time I set it off, I get to feel like the ultimate control freak!
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.

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