Winterberry Wishes

Winterberry in wetland in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Winterberry in local wetland (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Across the New England countryside, winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is taunting me with branches laden with jolly red berries.  Native shrubs sprinkled throughout nearby wetlands are loaded to capacity with plump, ruby pearls illuminating the otherwise dormant grasslands.  Abandoned properties and vacant lots are rampant with gorgeous specimens, their limbs bending from the weight of dazzling fruit.  Alas, they do this every year to mock me, for try as I may, I could not get a winterberry to produce a single fruit.  Not a one. That is until this year . . .

Winterberry along stream in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Winterberry along stream (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Over the last decade I purchased various winterberry cultivars, making sure I had the appropriate male for the appropriate female.  I planted them in moist areas where I know they thrive naturally.  I coddled them.  I caressed them.  I sang to them (perhaps that was the problem).  All to no avail.  No berries.  No showy displays after years of opportunity to establish themselves.  Even with virile males planted within a few feet of promiscuous females.  Nothing.  Nada.  So, I decided to do a little more research, and here’s what I found out:

Winterberry thicket in A Garden For All by kathy Diemer

Winterberry thicket ( photoby: Kathy Diemer)

Winterberry, or Ilex verticillata, is a deciduous (loses its leaves) shrub native to the wet woods, thickets and swamps of eastern North America, and grows best in soil with some moisture and good sun exposure.  Not only do the red or bright orange berries of Ilex verticillata provide beauty and contrast in the late season garden, they also supply migrating and overwintering birds with a nutritious snack.  Most winterberries are zoned from 4-8, and can grow to ten feet in optimum conditions (most I’ve seen in the wild are closer to eight feet or less). Female winterberry shrubs require a suitable male pollinator relatively close by for reliable berry production. The preferred studs for most winterberry are ‘Jim Dandy’ and ‘Southern Gentleman’, and I’ve compiled a list of a few of the best pairings for success below.  As always, try to buy plants from a local nursery to ensure hardiness and gender accuracy.

Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’: This female cultivar offers large red berries on a slower growing, dwarf shrub (2-3′) with an upright, rounded habit. Perfect in a smaller garden setting, profuse cherry red berries start in late fall and often persist to early spring (unless consumed by local birds). Miss Sprite prefers Ilex verticillata ‘Jim Dandy’ as her lover.

Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’: This female cultivar also boasts loads of bright scarlet berries on a larger, upright plant (6-9′).  Winter Red will quickly become the focal point of your winter garden, also providing fruit for the aviary population into spring. The branches are wonderful when cut for holiday decoration. The Lady in Red likes to hang with Ilex verticillata ‘Southern Gentleman’.

Ilex verticillata ‘Sparkleberry’: This female cultivar wears a lush green dress all summer, but quickly tosses it in a heap in exchange for the sparkly crimson fall gown.  Sparkleberry proudly displays her dazzling attire on a statuesque frame up to ten feet tall.  The glitter girl also prefers the company of a certain ‘Southern Gentleman’.

Ilex verticillata ‘Afterglow’: This fourth and final female cultivar remains a little smaller than some of her sisters, maturing to six feet tall at most.  Afterglow tends to be a little denser and more compact (don’t call her fat!), but is indeed a stunner for all seasons with her deep green summer foliage, golden bronze fall display and intense orange-red orbs that compete with Rudolph’s nose through the darkest days of winter. Afterglow shines her light in the direction of ‘Jim Dandy’ when she’s in the mood for love.

After all this inspiration, I went out looking for love, hoping that my “berry curse” was about to change.  As it happens, I found a forlorn, puny winterberry abandoned at the back of a nursery (not labeled), that still had a smattering of berries.  I promptly brought her home to introduce to the others:

My first berry producer in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

My first berry producer (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Hey, ladies and gents, meet your neighbor.  By the way, did you notice that this little woman, despite her discarded state, has somehow managed to produce berries?  If a neglected plant such as she can make berries, just imagine what you’re capable of “.

They just sat there and scoffed at me for the rest of the winter.  And then a funny thing happened the next fall; berries, berries and more berries!  No more wading through swamps and climbing through prickers to get a few branches for my holiday containers.  No more lusting after my neighbor’s abundant berries.  You see my friends, when all else fails sometimes a good old fashioned intimidation tactic is what’s called for to get your shrubs in line ~

** For other berry producers visit: For the Birds


  1. Bravo! At least that tactic worked! I like how they are attracted to certain “males”…..

    • Thanks, Patty! Just goes to show that perseverance . . . and a “threat” now and again . . . can work wonders in the garden! Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do! Cheers!

  2. I have one winterberry I planted last fall, with a holly about 30 feet away. I was told that that should work, being closely enough related. Well, no berries, nada. 🙁

    • I really recommend trying to pair a suitable male with females (same for hollies, too) for the best production, and try to find a female with fruit remnants so you know she has had berries before. And, if all else fails, you can always try threatening them as a last resort! Good luck Marjie!

  3. My grandmother and I made berry containers, long time ago. We go into the woods to dig small plants (2 – 3″); shiny green foliage and red round berries. In each jar, insert berry plant with moss. The jar was covered with either Saran Wrap or a jar top. The berry bowls lasted many months.

    • Interesting, I never heard of anything like this, Kathy. It’s almost a terrarium concept. Did the plants you dug up survive to be replanted in the spring? Otherwise, you could probably use branches of holly or rhododendron with the moss and berries for the same effect. Happy holidays and Thank you for sharing ~

  4. I did some research of the berry bowl and discover that craft is a new trend (2008) in New England. The blog Growing with Plants had a vintage advertisement for ‘Berry Bowls’ from a HORTICULTURE Magazine, circa 1957. The berry bowl include Checker Berry (wintergreen) and Partridge Berry (plants my grandmother and I dug from the woods).

    See blog

Speak Your Mind