Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
By Jill Maes
Community Conservation Coordinator
EarthWays Center, Missouri Botanical Garden
This installment of Species Spotlight goes to Ilex verticillata, commonly referred to as winterberry. The winterberry is native to central and eastern North America, including Missouri. Winterberry is a perennial, deciduous holly that is part of the Aquifoliaceae family. It is dioecious, which is Greek for two houses, and means that the plants require a male and female plant to produce the showy berries. One male plant can pollinate up to twenty female plants when they are planted within fifty feet of each other. Winterberry is mostly grown in moist soils, but it can tolerate average and clay soils. It is also tolerant to poorly drained areas and swampy conditions. Winterberry is a great option for a rain garden or used as a hedge for a natural border along your property. It prefers to grow in full sun to part shade and it is an easy native option to grow. Winterberry is a slow grower, but it can grow up to six to ten feet and it can spread four to eight feet wide, and it can spread by suckering.
The leaves have a simple and alternate arrangement and can be 1.5 to 4 inches long. The leaves are serrated and depending on the time of year, they can be green, black, yellow, or purple with a glossy feel. Winterberry loses its leaves in the winter and it is left with very showy, red berries, making it a great option for a pop of color during the winter months. The fruit type of the winterberry is known as a drupe, meaning it has a fleshy outer skin that surrounds a hard inner shell with a seed inside. The seeds germinate best when they are planted immediately after collection. The plants bloom in the summer with small greenish-white flowers. The stems can be olive-brown and purplish-brown. It is recommended to prune the old growth before the new growth appears, or you can risk limiting the growth of berries.
Winterberry benefits wildlife, including birds, small animals and butterflies. Winterberry can provide nesting, cover, and food to wildlife. It is resistant to some deer foraging, fire, and salt. The winterberry hosts caterpillars, including the pawpaw sphinx and Henry’s elfin butterfly. Even though the winterberry benefits wildlife, the berries can be toxic to humans and pets. The next time you are at Missouri Botanical Garden look for winterberry; they are really showing off this time of year.
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