Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) grows throughout the eastern United States. A member of the holly family, winterberry is a deciduous shrub growing as tall as ten to fifteen feet, preferring moist soil and full sun. This holly has somewhat glossy leaves that do not have the sharp, thorny edges of most hollies. Like other holly, winterberry has male or female plants. The bush has multitudes of tiny white flowers in the spring and becomes covered with bunches of bright red berries tightly packed along the branches in the fall. Because they shed their leaves, the berries on the bare branches with a snowy background are particularly eye-catching. Berry laden branches make lovely decorations added to fresh floral arrangements for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
As a child growing up on the farm, I never saw what we called red-berry bushes on the property. Often in the early winter these bushes could be spotted along roadsides where they favored damp ditches. After my husband and I bought the farm in 1985, I decided to decorate for Christmas outside the front door of our new home with a pretty wintery display. I collected an armload of winterberry branches from roadside ditches in the area. I made a large arrangement of winterberry mixed with pine and balsam boughs and pine cones. It was very beautiful for a few days. Then the red berries began to disappear. Before long the holly was stripped, leaving sad bare branches protruding from the evergreen boughs. Although I never saw them, I assume the wild birds ate all my holly berries. The lesson was: don’t use winterberries for outdoor decorating.
Then a few years after the destruction of my Christmas bouquet, I was walking in a swampy area of the horse pasture in the early winter and found a small bush with a few red berries on it. A winterberry shrub had volunteered on the farm. As time went by, more winterberries appeared until now there are several dozen. Most grow in that damp area of the pasture. The spot is the first real woods near the house and would be a natural place for a songbird to rest after filling itself stripping berries off my holiday decorations. The berry seeds were probably excreted by the birds as they rested.
Now, more than twenty-five years after the birds stripped my holly berries, I am finding young winterberry bushes growing along the edges of the hayfield, far from the house. This is exciting for me because I love the beautiful red-berry bushes. Unfortunately, most years the berries do not last long enough on the branches for me to pick any for decorating. This year, as usual, the birds have eaten nearly every berry. Branches that were thickly loaded in early fall are now almost bare. The birds must be very hungry, or else winterberry is one of their favorite foods. The photos I’ve included show some of the best remaining branches with their meager offering of berries. They will soon be stripped clean. I am hoping that as time passes, more and more winterberry plants will grow until there are enough for the birds to get their fill and for me to have a few for Yuletime decor.