How to plant winterberry?

Ilex verticillata

  • Attributes: Genus: Ilex Species: verticillata Family: Aquifoliaceae Uses (Ethnobotany): Hedge, Rain Garden Life Cycle: Woody Distribution: Eastern North America Fire Risk Rating: low flammability Wildlife Value: The Winterberry is a host plant for Henry’s Elfin butterfly and attracts other butterflies. Its fruits are eaten by over 48 species of birds, including cedar waxwings, and small mammals. Members of the genus Ilex support the following specialized bee: Colletes banksi. The foliage is food source for rabbits and deer. Play Value: Attracts Pollinators Edible fruit Wildlife Food Source Wildlife Larval Host Particularly Resistant To (Insects/Diseases/Other Problems): resistant to fire and mildly resistant to damage by deer. Heat, drought, and soil compaction tolerant. Dimensions: Height: 3 ft. 0 in. – 15 ft. 0 in. Width: 3 ft. 0 in. – 12 ft. 0 in.
  • Whole Plant Traits: Plant Type: Native Plant Shrub Tree Leaf Characteristics: Deciduous Habit/Form: Clumping Multi-stemmed Oval Rounded Growth Rate: Slow Maintenance: Low Texture: Medium
  • Fruit: Fruit Color: Orange Red/Burgundy Fruit Value To Gardener: Long-lasting Showy Display/Harvest Time: Fall Fruit Type: Berry Drupe Fruit Length: < 1 inch Fruit Width: < 1 inch Fruit Description: Bright red berry-like drupe on female plants; persists into winter. Berries ripen from August to December. Berries have a terminal black “dot” instead of a “fly” like the Rosaceae berries. Berries are striking on naked branches.
  • Flowers: Flower Color: Gold/Yellow Green White Flower Inflorescence: Insignificant Flower Value To Gardener: Showy Flower Bloom Time: Spring Flower Description: This plant has relatively inconspicuous greenish-white flowers that appear in the leaf axils in late spring. Blooms from April to June. Flowers, if properly pollinated, give way to a crop of bright red berries (1/4” diameter) in late summer to fall. Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Gold’ have tiny white flowers with a green/yellow center.
  • Leaves: Leaf Characteristics: Deciduous Leaf Color: Black Green Purple/Lavender Leaf Feel: Glossy Deciduous Leaf Fall Color: Gold/Yellow Leaf Type: Simple Leaf Arrangement: Alternate Leaf Shape: Oblanceolate Oblong Obovate Leaf Margin: Doubly Serrate Serrate Hairs Present: Yes Leaf Length: 1-3 inches Leaf Width: 1-3 inches Leaf Description: Deciduous, simple, smooth, acuminate, cuneate, obovate to oblong-ovate 1.5-4 inches long double serrated or doubly serrated alternate leaves. Leaves are pubescent on veins beneath. Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Gold’ have green leaves with obvious venation outline ontop with a lighter green underside where the veins are obvious in a pale-green.
  • Bark: Bark Color: Black Dark Brown Dark Gray Light Brown Light Gray Red/Burgundy Surface/Attachment: Smooth Bark Description: Grey to blackish with knobby lenticel bark, grey to grey-brown buds.

  • Stem: Stem Color: Brown/Copper Stem Is Aromatic: No Stem Lenticels: Conspicuous Stem Description: Stems are olive-brown to purplish-brown and are lenticelled.
  • Landscape: Landscape Location: Pond Recreational Play Area Riparian Landscape Theme: Children’s Garden Native Garden Pollinator Garden Rain Garden Winter Garden Design Feature: Border Foundation Planting Hedge Mass Planting Attracts: Butterflies Pollinators Small Mammals Songbirds Specialized Bees Resistance To Challenges: Deer Fire Salt Wet Soil

Common winterberry

Shape and Form

6 to 10 feet high and wide; rounded form.
Cultivars are more compact and smaller.

Tree & Plant Care

Best in full sun in acid soil.
Prefers moist to wet, acidic soil (native to swamps). Tolerates being flooded for extended periods of time.
Requires male and female plants for fruit set.
Tolerant of aerial salt spray.

Disease, pests and problems

No serious pests.
Chlorosis can occur in alkaline soils.

Native geographic location and habitat

C-Value: 9
Native in swamps and wet areas in eastern and Midwestern United States.

Attracts birds & butterflies

More than 20 species of birds feed on the berries.

Bark color and texture

New twigs a reddish-purple developing a silvery color. Older bark is light gray often peeling to a diamond-like pattern.

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture

Simple, alternate, elliptic leaves; 1 1/2 to 3 inches long with a finely toothed margin.
Glossy dark green in summer; with a paler lower surface. Fall color is yellow-green.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size

Inconspicuous; tiny white male and female flowers on separate plants.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions

Bright red berry-like fruit (drupes) in fall that persist into winter.
One male shrub will pollinate up to 5 female plants for fruit set.

Cultivars and their differences

This plant is a cultivar of a species that is native to the Chicago Region according to Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research. Cultivars are plants produced in cultivation by selective breeding or via vegetative propagation from wild plants identified to have desirable traits.”

Afterglow winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata ‘Afterglow’): female; compact, rounded 5 to 8 feet high; fruit is orange to orange-red. Jim Dandy is male pollinator.

Berry Heavy® winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata ‘Spravy’): female; 6 to 8 feet high; orange-red fruit. Jim Dandy is the male pollinator.

Berry Nice® winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata ‘Spriber’): female; 6 to 8 feet high; bright red fruit. ‘Southern Gentleman’ or Jim Dandy is male pollinator.

Red Sprite winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’): female; compact, oval-rounded, 3 to 4 feet high; large red fruit. Jim Dandy is male pollinator.

Winter Red winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’): female; rounded, 6 to 8 feet high; abundant persistent red fruit. ‘Southern Gentleman’ is the male pollinator.


Male and female flowers are usually borne on separate plants (dioecious), occasionally on the same plant (monoecious), and rarely a plant will produce perfect flowers (both male and female parts). All flowers are about ¼ inch across with 5 to 8 white petals that are spreading to reflexed. Female flowers have short sterile stamens, white turning brown with age, alternating with the petals and a prominent green ovary capped with a yellowish stigma in the center.

Male and perfect flowers have somewhat longer, yellow-tipped stamens alternating with the petals. Flowers are short-stalked and clustered in leaf axils along this year’s new branches, female clusters with 1 to 3 flowers and male with 3 to 10 flowers.

Leaves and stems:

Leaves are alternate and simple, 2 to 4 inches long, ¾ to 1¾ inches wide, somewhat variable in shape but more or less elliptic and widest at, above or below the middle, usually tapering to pointed tip, tapering at the base, on a hairy stalk about ¼ inch long. Edges are finely toothed, the teeth shallow often with a minute projection at the tip. The upper surface is dark green, hairless to sparsely hairy, the lower surface light green and hairy. Veins are prominent. New twigs are green, hairless to sparsley hairy becoming smooth and gray to brown second year.

Older bark is thin, smooth, grayish to brownish with scattered, pale horizontal lenticels (pores). Stems are erect, multiple from the base, the larger stems up to 2 inches diameter, and may create colonies from root suckers.


Fruit is a bright red, round berry, ¼ to 1/3 inch diameter, containing 1 to several nutlets, and persists through winter.


Winterberry is a native holly of eastern North America and reaches the western edge of its range in Minnesota. Its flowers are favored by bees and it’s an important winter food source for birds and small mammals. It has long been available in the nursery trade with many cultivars available, though the cultivars are not as favored by either insects or wildlife. It is easily recognized when flowering and the numerous, short-stalked, red berries do stand out when fruiting, especially in winter, but male plants are not so easily recognized when not flowering. The leaves may help distinguish it from other shrubs with similarly shaped, alternate leaves: look for the network of prominent veins and teeth with minute projections at the tips.

Photo © Sally & Andy Wasowski

    The Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a shrub that adapts well to life in containers and gives beautiful white flowers of shades ranging from cream to light green. It flowers between the months of April and July, just after the plant has given new leaves. Towards the end of summer, the Winterberry gives spherical berries of approximately ¼ of an inch (~0.6 cm), that when ripe, turn an orange and/or scarlet red color to stay on the plant even into mid-winter. The berries of the Winterberry are food for more than 40 species of birds and many mammals as well. However, they are poisonous to human beings and should not be consumed.

    The Winterberry can measure between 1.5 and 5 meters in height. When planted, more than one shrub should be planted, since there are both male and female shrubs. Planting them at a short distance from one another can help optimize pollination. They can be planted in direct sunlight or in places with more shade; nevertheless, it is important that they have sufficient water and that the soil is rather neutral.


  • Plant the Winterberry in a large container with good drainage and place it somewhere where it can receive at least a few hours of direct sunlight every day.
  • The Winterberry grows well in damp, neutral soil. Water it with frequency, but do not allow mud to form or water to accumulate on the surface.
  • In containers, the plants have few nutrients; placing some fertilizer or organic soil in the container can help your Winterberry be healthier and give better fruits.
  • If you wish to know more about the Winterberry, visit this page by the USDA.

Rain Garden Plants: Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

Winterberries are dioecious (separate male and female) plants. Therefore, for the best berry display, plant male and female plants together. Because winterberry plants are bee pollinated, generally one male plant is recommended for every four to five female plants (if plants are relatively far apart). If plants are closer together (within 40 feet) one male plant may be adequate to pollinate up to 20 female plants 2, 3. Be aware that you need to select the appropriate male cultivar whose flowering period coincides with the female for pollination, fertilization, and fruit set for berry production to occur. So, knowing whether the cultivar selected (recommended cultivars below) is from a northern or southern ecotype, or from a hybrid, is important. Other male hollies, evergreen and deciduous, assuming they flower at the same time, can also be effective pollinators.

The native habitat of winterberry ranges from plant colonies along the edges of streams or ponds and in, or near, swamps, thickets, and low woods. Due to root suckers, it will naturally form thickets or colonies when planted in a garden with consistently moist soil.

Winterberry is best used en masse and grouped plantings in shrub borders or foundation plantings.

Prune to shape early in the season before new growth appears. Plants prefer acidic soil conditions; foliage will exhibit chlorosis if sited in an alkaline soil. Before planting in a rain-garden or flowerbed, collect a soil sample, submit it to your County Extension office, and follow soil report recommendations.

Garden Design

Winterberry is ideally suited as a “back of the border” plant where it serves as a backdrop for other plants in the garden (Figure 4). Ideally, the rain garden should be designed to have multiple seasons of interest.
Winterberry pairs well with most other species that can be used in rain gardens. When pairing, because winterberry does not tolerate alkaline soils, be sure that other plants chosen also do not require alkaline soils.

Table 1. Plant preferred site conditions

Light: Full sun to part shade

Zones: 3 to 9

Origin: Eastern North America

Type: Deciduous shrub

Moisture: Dry to wet

Moisture timing: Prefers consistently moist soil.

Soil: Prefers moist, acidic, loamy soil, but adapts to other soil types. Does not tolerate alkaline (high pH) soils

Table 2. Design considerations – growth habit and plant interest

Height & Width: 3-12’ h x 3-12’ w

Spacing: 3 to 5’ on center

Growth rate: Slow to moderate.

Habit: Oval, rounded, but twiggy; multi-stemmed.

Foliage: Dark green in spring and summer, purplish in fall.

Flower: May – July, non-showy, small, white flowers (early and late blooming cultivars)

Fall – winter interest: Showy clusters of red fruit persists through early winter.

Companion Plants


  • Blue flag iris (Iris virginica, blue to purple iris flowers in early summer, full sun)
  • Hardy ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum, purplish-blue flowers held atop foliage in late summer to fall, full sun to part shade)
  • Scarlet rose-mallow (Hibiscus coccineus, large(6 to 8” across) red flowers from mid-summer to mid-fall, full sun to part sharde).
  • Redhot poker lily (Kniphofia uvaria, red, orange, or yellow flowers in late spring/early summer, full sun)
  • Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis, yellow or red flowers in early to mid-spring, full sun to shade)

Ornamental grasses:

  • Prairie Sky switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Prairie Sky’, fall flowering, full sun)
  • Muhlygrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), soft-rush (Juncus effuses, fall flowering pink or white flowers, full sun to part shade)

Deciduous shrubs:

  • Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum, spring flowers, early fall berries)
  • American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana, vivid purple fruit in fall through early winter, full sun to part shade)

Recommended Cultivars1,2

Early (Northern) Female
‘Stop Light’ – Large, early coloring dark red fruits contrast well with fine, dark green foliage.

‘Earlibright’ – Early developing, orange-red fruits.

‘Red Sprite’ – Slow-growing, densely branched, dwarf form with abundant red fruits that persist late in the season. Northern ecotype.

Mid-season Female
‘Autumn Glow’ – Fine textured foliage that emerges purple in spring. Berries are reddish-orange to red. ~8’ h x w. Pollinated by ‘Raritan Chief’.

‘Bonfire’ – Fine textured foliage. Moderate growth rate to a spreading 5’h x 6’ w. Red, non-fading fruit color. Berries retained longer than many cultivars.

‘Harvest Red’ – Dark red fruits displayed on an upright form. Pollinated by ‘Raritan Chief’.

‘Scarlet O’Hara’ – Tightly clustered orange-tinged, red fruits.

‘Winter Gold’ – Single or clustered yellowish-orange (apricot) colored fruit. Rounded form.

Late (Southern) Female
‘Afterglow’ –Vivid reddish orange fruit singly, or in clusters of 2 or 3; highly persistent (sometimes until spring). Slow growing and compact with small, glossy green leaves

‘Cacapon’ – Profuse, persistent, dark red fruits and dark green glossy leaves on an upright plant.

‘Carolina Cardinal’ – Winterberry hybrid with fine textured foliage. Moderate growth to 4’h x 5’ w. Red berries don’t fade or sun scorch.

‘Christmas Cheer’ – Compact habit with abundant red fruits.

‘Chrysocarpa’ – Yellow fruited form. Wildlife prefer red-fruited forms.

‘Jolly Red’ – Large, abundant, red fruits.

‘Shaver’ – Profuse, persistent, large, dark red fruits and dark green glossy leaves on an upright plant.

‘Sparkleberry’ – Winterberry hybrid with masses of crimson red berries that persist later than most hybrids and cultivars and don’t fade or sun scorch. Mounding vigorous growth reaches ~ 8’ h x w.

‘Sunset’ – Heavy production of large reddish-orange to red fruits, singly, or in clusters of 2 to 5. Vigorous, spreading habit. Late flowering.

‘Winter Red’ – Abundant bright red fruit that persist until spring. Erect but rounded form. Cut stems keep well. Late Flowering.

‘Apollo’ – Male pollinator with late-season bloom period. Plants reach 12’ h at maturity.

‘Holden’ – Male pollinator with mid-season bloom period. Compact, dense, uniform habit. 5’ h after 9 years.

‘Jim Dandy’ – Male pollinator for northern ecotypes. Prolonged, early bloom period. Slow growing, dense, broad growth habit. 5.5’ h and w in 12 years.

‘Raritan Chief’ – Male winterberry hybrid (I. verticillata x I. serrata) intended pollinator for ‘Autumn Glow’ and

‘Harvest Red.’ Northern ecotype. 6’ h and w in 10 years.

‘Rhett Butler’ – Male winterberry hybrid with mid-season bloom period. Cold hardy to zone 4. Selected as pollinator for ‘Scarlett O’Hara.’

‘Southern Gentleman’ – Male pollinator with late-season bloom period. Can pollinate ‘Cacapon,’ ‘Shaver,’ ‘Sparkleberry,’ ‘Sunset,’ ‘Winter Red,’ and ‘Winter Gold.’ 8’ h at maturity.

‡Clemson University Extension does not promote the use of any herb or medicine without your doctor’s knowledge and supervision.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *