17 February 2009

Jodi’s Gotta-have plants: Winterberry.


It will come as no surprise to anyone that in one facet of my life, I'm enmeshed in a book project, a collection of essays about gardening in our neck of the woods. As part of that project, I'm doing a series of plant profiles, a dozen or so plants that I just gotta-have in my garden. I thought I'd post modified excerpts from my manuscript here because my readers are among the best commenters around, and I know you'll give me productive feedback. 

So we'll kick off with my winter-favourite, the winterberry. 

My instant-smile plant for the dark days of winter glows with brilliant scarlet, orange or red berries on an artistic sculpture of branches scoured bare of leaf. Whether you call it winterberry, Canada holly, coralberry , or by the curiously unrelated name of black alder, Ilex verticillata is a terrific plant for generating winter interest in the Atlantic gardenscape. This deciduous shrub is native to eastern North American and can often be found growing in large thickets, which are particularly noticeable once the winds of autumn have stripped away the leaves so that the berries can be seen.

First Nations people often referred to winterberry as feverbush, because they used a solution made with the plant’s bark as a potion for reducing fever, as well as for an anticeptic solution in cleaning wounds and injuries. Plants for a Future reports that a herbal tea can be made from dried leaves, but the berries are not rated as being desirable as an edible for human consumption.

Winterberry is naturally found in moist areas where the soil is rich in organic matter, and because the plants will sucker, they’re great for creating a mass planting along a pond or other suitable location. The shrubs tend to be slow growing for a few years until well established, and normally will reach an average size of 6-10 feet in height. If you keep suckers pruned you can limit the spread of your plants, but I am waiting patiently for mine to form thickets such as those that delight residents and visitors to the south-western parts of Nova Scotia’s shoreline. If you’re a bird or wildlife gardener, you’ll plant these shrubs to draw in fruit-eating songbirds such as waxwings.

Like other hollies, winterberry is dioecious so you need both male and female plants in order to get the big display of berries through fall and winter. Cultivars and natural variations will see berries that range from orange through scarlet to deep crimson, and even rarely will sport to yellow, although I've yet to see a yellow-berried one in the wild with my own eyes. But winterberry isn't just about the fruit. To my winter-wary mind, always on the watch for plants that show great winter interest, the male plants are as attractive during the winter months as the female plants, with their distinctive branch structure.

If you’re thinking about adding Canada holly to your garden, look for a site that will be at least damp, or even wet; the shrubs will languish in soil that gets too dry in the warmth of summer, but will happily grow along ponds, ditches, or in soggy clay soil such as we contend with in our North Mountain garden. They are best suited to soils that are acid, which is a condition most Atlantic gardeners also find a common experience. Alkaline soils will cause leaves to yellow and often to drop off. If you have a damp area where you want to secure the soil, such as a slope leading into a wetland or ditch or raingarden runoff, consider planting Canada holly, because it works brilliantly to reduce erosion in such situations. 

32 comments:

  1. Lovely. I wish I had a moist area here to try some.
    Marnie

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  2. What a lovely photo of the winterberry against the blue sky and decorated with snow.
    The tribute to your "teacher"moving.
    Loved the chocolate plants , now just have to find some of these beauties for my garden.

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  3. Hi Jodi, that was a great essay, no changes needed! :-) How wonderful that this shrub is native from your area all the way down to mine. Nary a sucker has been seen on ours yet, but the drought may be affecting them. It is a wonder they are even producing berries. What a treat they are for any gardener. When the berries start to get soft, like they are now doing, the birds will clean them off in a day. The gold berries are already gone, maybe they are tastier. A sure sign of spring to come soon.
    Frances

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  4. Jodi, not a plant that I have ever seen but have read about in blogs. I liked your article - it was chatty yet gave me all the information I needed to decide if I could grow this plant - I can't! I would like to see some of the pictures of cultivars and the different coloured berries especially if I was thinking of buying this species.

    Looking forward to the next "just gotta-have' plant. Best wishes Sylvia (England)

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  5. They are on my must add list too Jodi. Our city has them planted along the interstate and they thrive.

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  6. Jodi, I think you may have helped me ID a shrub we found growing in the pasture up behind the barn. Hubby picked some (with the help of the little JD tractor because it was a wet spot) and brought it to me for a pretty fall bouquet. I tried in vain to find a name, but this just might be it. Funny, because we've been thinking about planting a winterberry.
    Great article - good info and an interesting read. Loved the pics too. Thanks! :)

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  7. Jodi, Love the essay and the photo of winterberry massed. But the photo of the snow covered berries with that brilliant blue sky is gorgeous. I have two Winter Gold (and Southern Gentlemen to take care of pollination needs) going into the newly expanded Garden of Benign Neglect and hope it suckers all over the place! Keeping the soil moist and acid will be the trick in my nearly neutral soil! We'll see how they work out. Gail

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  8. I've loved this plant since I first saw that top photo in another post a while back. It is stunning, and your description of is is wonderful.

    Do you have these on your property, jodi? Can you get them at local nurseries?

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  9. That is a stunning plant. Love the shock of red surrounded by white snow. I bet it would do OK here in PNW, I just fear space restrictions on our little plot would make it high maintenance. I'll just have to enjoy from afar.

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  10. Well, you just taught me something I didn't know... that you need a male AND female bush to get the showy display! Thank you! I, too, LOVE the beautiful berries in the greyness of winter. They're a favorite of mine to photograph.

    Cindy

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  11. I'd love to have a few here. They are on my list of plants that I will eventually get!

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  12. Jodi -- What a wonderful post chock-full of interesting information. And your photos are beautiful -- especially the different seasons and angles. I'd love to have a field of that. But when I read the requirement for a "moist" place, I just had to laugh. No such place here! So I will have to enjoy yours -- thanks for sharing and good luck with the book of essays.

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  13. First you tempt me with such lovely photos, then you slap down my hopes with the caveat that these plants need moist soil. Sigh... I'm learning to accept, even enjoy, my well-drained soil, but this has given me a serious setback.

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  14. Wow, that sounds like a plant i have to have. Though I do have a holly that is kind of faltering.

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  15. Love the Winter Berries, as a floral
    designer I get to use them during the winter time.

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  16. A beautiful shrub! Unfortunately, I don't have any place suitable to plant one, but if I did, your essay would have me convinced.

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  17. Jodi,
    Lovely photos of the Winterberry and very interesting article you wrote about it. Good luck with this writing project. I too know all about "gotta have" plants...I have a special legal pad reserved just for my long list of them.

    Jon at Mississippi Garden

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  18. I have always appreciated prairies
    and meadows, with an intense dislike to turf/lawns, the sterility
    of the whole.

    It is a pity down here prairies/meadows are concepts missunderstood or rather non
    existant, with all the benefits for the environment and the powerful,
    soft and moving beauty.

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  19. What a gorgeous stand of Winterberry. I wish I had a moist spot for them.

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  20. Jodi,
    Those berries are the most stunning colors! We don't have any berry producing plants in our garden except Nandina and I think they are poisonous.-Randy

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  21. OK you got me interested. The color especially with snow cover would be an ideal addition to an area that I have that should suit them. I haven't seen any at nurseries so I'll have to ask if some can be ordered.

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  22. I remember that photo of the thicket and how I loved it. I wish the conditions at Our Little Acre were favorable for growing it, but they aren't.

    Best of luck with your next book. I so loved your first one and look forward to this one!

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  23. Crimson winterberry, winter white snow and icy blue sky ~ a perfect photo, jodi! (Hope you use this in your book!) Though winterberry require too much space in my yard, we're blessed to have them at the lake where I prune branches for stunning arrangements back home.

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  24. Jodi - You have convinced me about winterberries, for sure. I haven't seen them growing around here and I wonder if they would do well?

    Hey, I have a question about NS in April - does anybody tour gardens at that time of year? I may visit Halifax in April and wondered if I should take a day to look at the city. I know April in SK is nothing nice to look at!

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  25. We were delighted to find wild Winterberries on our place when we moved here. They are so vivid in the landscape. I need to get out and strip all of the honeysuckle and greenbriar off of ours.

    Very nice article. I agree, they like a lot of moisture. Beautiful pictures, too. Where was the first picture taken?

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  26. Every bit of it needs to be reworded and the whole color is just wrong. No silly---it's perfect as always. I want some Winterberry. I want mine to have that lovely Nova Scotia back drop too. Does it come with that?

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  27. I have a huge weakness for winterberries. Lovely photos. :D

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  28. Hi Jodi, I can vouch for the damp soil requirement. I lost both the male and female winterberry to our hot, dry waterless summer. Thankfully Cotoneaster lacteus and Aronia arbutifolia fulfill my need for winter interest. I love these photos. Nice write-up.

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  29. What a lovely plant! The essay was just as lovely, as well as informative and clearly written. I can't think of any changes I'd suggest. I always tell my students that it takes real skill to pack a lot of information into a tight space and still keep it interesting!

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  30. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE my Winterberry and my Possumhaw Hollies!!! I'm wid you, babe. Possumhaws grow wild here. Groups of Possumhaws can easily been spotted glowing bright red among the brown winter limbs. Amazing plants - gotta have 'em.

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  31. Wow, I've never seen them here! But what a wonderful bird plant! All those berries are sure cheerful.

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  32. Beverly Seaton19 March, 2009 23:08

    Just discovered your blog and this post. It came at a time that I am clearing up a messy area on our country property here in central Ohio,and you jogged my memory of a wet spot out there. Just cleared it out and NOW I have a place to plant winterberry! Thanks--I will be planting Winter Red and So. Gentleman.

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