The Plant Native

Winterberry

Highlights

If you’ve seen a native Winterberry shrub in the winter, you will not forget it. Winterberry covers itself in bright red berries—a treasured food source for 48 species of birds during the coldest winter months. The berries look especially striking because Winterberry is deciduous—meaning it loses its leaves in the winter—putting the spotlight on its berry-filled stems. They like sun to part sun and get up to 12 feet tall.

Do you dream of birdwatching from the comfort of your home in the winter? Do you love seeing bright things during the cold months? Winterberry is the shrub for you. Find planting tips below.

Sun – part sun
6-12′ tall
Bird favorite
Ilex verticillata
Even covered in ice, Winterberry is stunning

Dig Deeper

Explore the history, types, and where to plant native Winterberry

Table of Contents

 This beautiful shrub adds a pop of color during the winter months when it loses its leaves and fills its branches with berries. In this article, we will discuss how to plant Winterberry, what it looks like during each season, and some issues to consider when planting it.

Winterberry is native to a huge portion of North America. Map from the USDA.

Where is Winterberry native?

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a shrub native to a wide swath of North America. Anyone from Maine west to Minnesota, south to the Florida panhandle, and even as far west as eastern Texas and Louisiana can plant Winterberry.

How to plant Winterberry

Sun and Water Requirements

Winterberry is a low-maintenance plant that is easy to grow. You can plant winterberry in a wide range of sun, from full sun or part shade.

Water needs depend on the type of Winterberry. Native Winterberry grows in nature in swamps and wet places, but Winterberry cultivars offer options for drier environments.

Soil Requirements

Finally, native Winterberries like acidic soil. Acidic soil in nature most often comes from fallen pine needles (the needles are acidic, and release the acid into the soil as they decompose.)

In today’s gardening world, there are lots of ways to give acidic-loving plants some acid. You can:

  • Plant your Winterberry near an evergreen tree and mimic nature
  • Fertilize it with acidic fertilizer in the spring
  • Use a master gardener’s trick: spread branches from your Christmas tree around it in January

How to plant a new Winterberry bush

When planting Winterberry, dig a hole that is twice the size of the root ball. Mix some compost or other organic matter into the soil to help with drainage and add nutrients. Place the plant in the hole and backfill it with the new compost-mixed soil, being careful not to cover the crown of the plant. Water thoroughly after planting and during dry spells in the first year, to help get the plant established.

If you are planting more than one Winterberry, plant them at least 5-6 feet apart so they each have room to grow.

Winterberry During the Four Seasons

Winterberry is a beautiful plant that looks different during each season. Here’s what you can expect:

Spring: In the spring, winterberry will begin to leaf out. The leaves are a glossy green. The plant will also begin to flower in the spring, with small, yellow-green flowers.

Summer: During the summer months, the plant will continue to grow and fill out. It will have a dense, bushy shape and the leaves will remain glossy green. You may also spot small, green berries.

Fall: In the fall, the leaves of winterberry will begin to turn a bright yellow color. It is beautiful, especially when the plant is planted in groups. The green berries will also begin to turn a bright red color in the fall.

Winter: During the winter months, the leaves of winterberry will fall off, leaving behind the bright red berries. These berries are a beautiful sight against the winter landscape, and they also provide a food source for birds and other wildlife.

A few challenges to consider with Winterberry

There are a few issues to consider when planting Winterberry.

You’ll need male + female plants for berries

First, native Winterberries are dioecious, which means that you need both male and female plants for the female plants to produce berries. Plants need to be at most 40 feet apart.

Be sure to plant at least one male plant for every five female plants. If you’re wondering if it’s male or female, go to a trusted local nursery when buying Winterberry. The staff will help!

There are also some Winterberry cultivars that have been bred to make berries without needing two plants. Again, ask your local nursery when you look for these shrubs.

Winterberry is toxic if eaten (unless you’re a bird)

Sadly, Winterberry berries are toxic if ingested. This shrub may not be a good choice if you have pets or small children who might try to eat the berries.

What to plant with Winterberry

Winterberries look great alongside other native plants that also like acidic soil, like Mountain Laurel and native Rhododendron. Some inspiration includes:

Stunning combo of Winterberry + Caroline Jessamine in Washington D.C. Photo by Suzanne Cadwell.

Plant a few Winterberries for a winter show

In conclusion, Winterberry is a beautiful and low-maintenance plant that adds a pop of color (and birdwatching opportunities) during the winter months. By following the planting tips outlined above, you can enjoy this stunning plant in your backyard. Winterberries are wonderful four-season choices for anyone in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, or South. Planting native shrubs like Winterberry saves a ton of water, time, and money—especially compared to lawns or non-native plants. Happy planting!

Next steps and resources

UPDATED —
04/11/2024
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