Winter Berries

Then heigh-ho! the holly!
This life is most jolly.

William Shakespeare

Winter Berry Displays

Shakespeare’s holly doesn’t grow in the Midwest; indeed, no evergreen hollies thrive in our harsh climate.

But if you can provide compatible cultural conditions, Winterberry or Michigan Holly (Ilex verticillata) will put on a ravishing berry display in fall and winter. Its profuse red fruit ripens in September and October and persists through December and into January. The leaves are not evergreen as are other hollies, but when the leaves fall, the crimson berries show off magnificently on the bare branches, especially striking against snow. (This photograph was taken in early December of last year; the berries this year were very sparse.)

Winterberry grows 6-10’ tall in wide colonies. Hardy to zone 3, it is found throughout the East and into Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Winterberry is dioecious and requires both female and male plants for flowering. It prefers a moist or wet soil with a pH of 6-6.5‘; it is thriving here near the Fox River at the St Charles, IL Park District. This area is frequently inundated in spring.

‘Red Sprite’ is a Winterberry compact dwarf cultivar that grows 3-4’ high and wide and has an abundance of bright red berries. It is growing happily, so far, next to the St. Charles Park District building, so it might be worth trying in your garden. (Jim Dandy, the male form, is required for every 4 females).

It is planted between a concrete building foundation and a concrete sidewalk, yet is thriving in what must be an alkaline situation.

The translucent red berries of American Cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum) decorate this shrub from September through most of the winter–a stunning display. The berries are too astringent for birds to eat in fall and winter; the fruit doesn’t become palatable until it has gone through multiple freeze-thaw cycles.

A four-season shrub, it has flat, lacy white flowers in late spring and ravishing ruby red fall foliage. The species grows 8-12′ tall and 6-8′ wide; there are, however, smaller growing cultivars.

Use it as a specimen, a hedge, part of a shrubbery border, or at the corners of your house. Plant it in moist soil in sun or partial shade.

Don’t confuse it with the similar-looking European Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus) which has become a weed in our forest preserves.

The specimen, above, is in full sun and is spectacular. Or I should say, “was”; the current owners of the property have taken it down. The photo is one I took several years ago.

The 1/2” red hips and bristly stems of the Prairie or Illinois Rose (Rosa setigera) are colorful in early winter in gardens, fencerows, and savannas. Illinois Rose is a large rambling shrub that can be unruly; its long canes may stretch to 12’ or more. It may be trained over an arch or along a fence or situated to cascade down a hillside. It has spectacular blossoms in early July, which i will show you next summer; you have already seen the colorful autumn foliage here last month. In nature this rose grows in part shade in woodland openings or edges. This photo was taken in early December 2009.

In a garden that is covered with a white blanket of snow there is a distinct beauty which the far south does not possess. A drift of snow half covering a stone ledge or blanketing a group of prairie roses that send their red berries through the snow, warming their surroundings with the reflected light from the sun, creates a picture of joy and happiness. It is so different from the same garden in summer, yet in both there is the freedom and the urge to be.

Jens Jensen
Siftings

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