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Winterberry Holly
Ilex verticillata

Photo: Dr. Robert Polomski

Unlike its evergreen cousins, the deciduous winterberry holly wallows in obscurity. It remains unnoticed in the landscape for most of the year. In the spring and summer, its two- to three-inch long serrated green leaves change to yellow-green, and then to purplish-bronze before they’re shed in the fall. Depending on the gender, the holly either disappears into the winter landscape, or if it’s a female winterberry holly (hollies are dioecious – male and female flowers occur on separate plants), expect a lavish display of berries.

Even after the leaves drop, the clusters of bird-attracting fruit enliven the autumn landscape. Numerous selections have been made, but some of the best red-fruited cultivars are ‘Winter Red,’ ‘Red Sprite’ (dwarf; grows slowly to 3 ½ ft. high and 4 ft. wide), and ‘Sunset.’ Ilex verticillata f. aurantiaca bears orange fruit.

Female hollies need male plants nearby for fruiting to occur. Interestingly, not any male will do. You need to select the appropriate male cultivar whose flowering period coincides with the female. Good male cultivars include ‘Southern Gentleman,’ ‘Jim Dandy,’ ‘Apollo,’ and ‘Raritan Chief.’ However, other male hollies – evergreen and deciduous, assuming they flower at the same time – can be effective pollinators.

Deciduous hollies make their greatest impact when planted en masse. Since winterberry hollies can grow 6 to 10 ft. high with a similar spread, space them accordingly. They will colonize or sucker and produce large thickets in average. They like medium to wet soils in full sun to part shade.