These gentlemen like the ladies.
Male winterberry holly plants can handle lots of female attention — gardeners concur, recommending at least one male for every five female plants. These shrubs can and should surround themselves with those of the opposite sex.
This advice must also be given to the girls. The female plant’s life would be berry lonely without a male. In fact, she will have no berries at all without him. The more males the merrier in this relationship, since winterberry holly plants are dioecious, which means that they have male and female parts on separate plants and cannot self-fertilize. They need each other in order for the female to produce a good set of fruit.
If all goes well with the gender ratios, a successful coupling (and fertilization) can occur — and fireworks ensue. These fireworks are not the flash-and-burn kind, but are the persistent blazing red berries that shine brightly through the winter, giving gorgeous color to the gray landscape. During the winter season, female winterberry holly cannot be mistaken for many other plants. It is heavily laden with clusters of two to four red berries that nestle closely to the twigs.
Winterberry holly is closely related to other more well-known hollies. Most hollies are evergreen — notable and loved for keeping their leaves all year. But not winterberry, which is deciduous and loses its leaves seasonally.
This shrub is much more indistinct during the rest of the year. The berries are a dull green, and the alternate, oval leaves turn black and fall off in the fall. The white flowers (which bloom in June) are small and insignificant — unless you are a bee, that is, because bees thriveon winterberry flowers,which are a great early nectar source.
Besides pollinators, other animals are also enamored of winterberry holly. Forty-nine (someone must be counting) species of birds, including cedar waxwings, robins, bluebirds and quail eat the berries, as do many mammals. Thoreau observed that mice, too, eat winterberry, on which they “run up the twigs at night and gather this shining fruit, take out the small seeds, and eat their kernels at the entrance to their burrows.”
This fruit is not a bird’s first choice, though. Winterberry fruits are low in fat, so for hearty meals, don’t give as much bang for the buck as other fruits, nuts and berries. Birds will eat them, however, late in the season after the frost has softened up the berries and after many other food supplies have been diminished. Humans should take a pass on this wild fruit, which is toxic to us.
Winterberry’s scientific name is Ilex verticulata. Ilex is the genus of hollies and means “evergreen oak,” describing the other evergreen varieties more than this deciduous one. Verticulata describes a whorled pattern, though nothing on this plant appears whorled. How it got this name is another of botany’s great mysteries. Winterberry is also called black alder, fever bush, false alder, and brook alder.
So while it’s not the type of holly to deck the halls with, it does provide festive feasts for the birds and the bees. In that company, it should surprise us little when we see a winterberry holly harem.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.