Winterberry holly can offer a bright yard accent or border

January 19, 2022

Is your holly bush protecting your house from lightning strikes? Ages ago, people revered holly bushes because their thorns drew lightning, keeping it safely away from barns and houses. Actually, science backs this up: The spines on holly leaves act as miniature lightning conductors, protecting the holly tree and nearby buildings from strikes.

It’s recommended to plant Winterberry holly instead of Japanese Barberry and Pyracantha, since both of these can become invasive. Wild birds eat the fruit of these and spread the seeds.

Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is a deciduous shrub that drops its leaves in the fall, revealing the bright-red berries that last through winter into spring. These shrubs are often sold as small potted plants during the Christmas season.

Winterberry is a slow-growing shrub that will typically reach from 3 to 15 feet tall. It spreads by suckers and can form large thickets. The dark-green, elliptical leaves are 2 to 3 inches long. Small, light-greenish-white flowers bloom in spring.

Unlike other familiar hollies, winterberry is a deciduous shrub rather than an evergreen. Although one might view this as a drawback, it proves to be a beneficial trait, since it allows the exciting display of red berries to come to the forefront as winter arrives. All the attention is drawn to the plant's fruit, with no foliage to obstruct the view. Not only do the bright berries add important color to winter landscapes, but they also lure in colorful birds that love to feed on the prolific red berries. These plants will attract overwintering bluebirds, robins, catbirds, cedar waxwings, and woodpeckers.

Winterberry shrubs typically grow in wetlands, so they are a good choice for places on your property that are somewhat soggy or poorly drained. However, they also grow in well-drained soil, as long as they are watered regularly. Winterberry shrubs are usually resistant to pests and diseases. Once in a while, they can get powdery mildew, which is rarely serious.

Plant winterberry holly as a property border, along paths, or as a privacy screen. Clump several of them together as part of a songbird sanctuary. Because winterberry naturally prefers acidic soils, you may want to add pine needles, oak leaves, or aluminum sulfate to the planting bed.

Winterberry is dioecious, meaning male flowers and female flowers grow on separate plants. In order to produce berries, you will need a male plant nearby to pollinate the female flowers. A single male plant will pollinate up to 20 female plants if grown within 40 feet.

Holly bark, berries, and leaves are all slightly toxic because they contain theobromine, which is similar to caffeine. In small amounts, theobromine is harmless to humans, although large amounts lead to stomach upsets. Indeed, one particular holly species, Yaupon Holly, is named Ilex vomitoria, and it is used in traditional Native American medicine to induce vomiting.

For winter beauty and to feed our feathered friends, plant a hedge of winterberry holly. Enjoy the antics of woodpeckers and cedar waxwings eating the bright-red berries and know that those holly bushes might be ever-so-slightly protecting your house from lightning.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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