BY LEAH ZERBE
Last summer, I delighted in watching my robin friends use our raspberry bushes like runways. As one swooped in to gobble up a berry that seemed almost too big for its beak, another was departing the brambles with a fruit-filled belly.
And while the delicious, sweet burst of fresh raspberries is months away, it’s important to note that other, lesser-known berries still play a crucial role in helping our backyard birds make it through the long winter.
The bird-friendly shrub with winter appeal
Berries available in the winter can be literal lifesavers for birds, which is why the appropriately named “winterberry” is a perfect choice for many landscapes.
A member of the holly family, common winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is native to Pennsylvania and much of the Eastern United States. And it offers far more benefits than other “alien” plant species that offer cold-season berries. (Alien, exotic plants with winter berries, like Japanese barberry, for example, originated in other parts of the world, don’t naturally fit into Pennsylvania ecosystems and often become invasive when grown in the United States. This crowds out more beneficial native plants that better support our wildlife, including pollinators.)
That’s why it’s so important to landscape with as many “native” species as possible. Native flowers, trees and shrubs tend to be lower maintenance because they naturally occur here and support our complex local food web in miraculous ways.
Why plant Ilex verticillata?
Winterberry offers a bright burst of color just as other plants fade during the late fall and winter months. The abundance of bright red berries on female plants is especially stunning against a snowy backdrop of evergreens this time of year. (Just be sure to leave those berries for wildlife; they’re poisonous to humans.)
The deciduous shrub acts like a magnet for more than 48 bird species that enjoy its mid-fall to winter fruit, including hermit thrushes, mockingbirds, bluebirds, robins, cedar waxwings and many more. If any berries remain by late winter, be sure to keep an eye on the shrub: Flocks of migrating birds returning for spring will be sure to visit and devour them up.
Winterberry also attracts pollinators. If you’re the native, solitary ground-nesting bee, Colletes banksi, life is not possible without plants like winterberry. This species forages exclusively on flowering plants in the Ilex, or holly, genus.
Where to plant this spring
In nature, winterberry occurs along stream banks and ponds and in wet woods and swamps, but in the home garden or school or business landscape, it accepts a range of conditions, including drier to wet soils and full sun to part shade. It tolerates wet, heavier clay soil and periodic flooding, but isn’t the right plant for an area that is chronically flooded.
A multi-stemmed shrub that reaches 6 to 8 feet in height, winterberry is best planted with a mass of other winterberry plants. It’s great for bird-friendly borders or hedging and can be pruned to shape. Because of its affinity for moisture, it’s also a go-to shrub for native plant rain gardens that help soak in rainwater and reduce runoff.
One important note: Because the sexes are separate, be sure to include at least one male plant in your landscape to ensure berries on the female winterberry plants.
The book, “The Living Landscape,” suggests planting wild oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) with winterberry to provide a highly nutritious mix of berries and seeds. In the wild, winterberry often grows with other native plant powerhouses like silky dogwood, arrowwood viburnum and spicebush in the understory.
The foliage is considered a food source for rabbits and deer, so I always stake a tree tube around my young winterberry plants. You can also create a chicken wire enclosure secured with zip ties and stakes around young winterberry plants to keep them protected until they grow larger and stronger to tolerate nibbling from wildlife.
Where to buy native winterberry
Look for native winterberry (Ilex verticillata) this spring at native plant nurseries and plant sales. Or, you can save money by ordering bare root seedlings now for spring pickup through the 46th Annual Seedling Sale to benefit Sweet Arrow Lake. For more info, call Kathy Stefanick at 570-345-4963 or “Porcupine Pat” at 570-391-3326, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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