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.