Common Winterberry

Ilex verticillata

Description & Overview

Common Winterberry is a Wisconsin native deciduous holly that varies in size and is found growing in damp areas throughout much of the state. Abundant bright red fruits hug branches on the female plants from fall into winter, providing wildlife and birds much-needed nourishment. Plant in groups as both male and female plants are needed to produce fruit.

Core Characteristics

Mature Height: 3-9 feet
Mature Spread: 3-8 feet
Growth Rate: Slow
Growth Form: Shrub
Light Requirements: Full Sun to Partial Shade
Site Requirements: Medium to wet, acidic soil
Flower: Relatively inconspicuous greenish-white flowers that appear in the leaf axils in late spring
Bloom Period: April to June
Foliage: Green
Fall Color: Insignificant
Fruit Notes: Female plants if pollinated get attractive bright red berries

Suggested Uses:

Common Winterberry is easily grown in average, acidic, medium to wet soils in full sun to part shade. While they are adaptable to both light and heavy soils, they thrive in moist, acidic, organic loams. Winterberry has a good tolerance to poorly drained soils including wet boggy, or swampy conditions.

Use Common Winterberry in a wildlife or native garden, as it supports many creatures!

With its love of moist areas, plant around retention ponds, stream banks, or runoff ditches.

Plant in masses as a privacy screen or tall informal hedge. With their interesting foliage and bright red berries, they can stand alone as a pretty specimen or accent in a mixed bed.

Use the branches covered with berries in floral arrangements especially around the holidays.

Winterberry is Dioecious, which means it has separate male and female plants. The flowers are relatively inconspicuous and green-white in color, appearing on new growth. One male plant will be sufficient in pollinating 6-10 female plants. Plant within 50 feet of each the females. If properly pollinated the female plant will give way to a crop of 1/4″ bright red berries in late summer to fall. Berries are quite showy and will persist into and often throughout the winter and into early spring. The vibrant red berries provide considerable impact and light up the landscape in dreary winters.

Winterberry must reach a certain age before they can be sexed. We offer unsexed (smaller/younger) and sexed (older – male and female) plants.

Wildlife Value:

Host plant for Henrys Elfin Butterfly (Callophrys henrici) and Harris’ Three-spot (Harrisimemna trisignata).

While humans are not able to eat Winterberry fruits because they are poisonous, they are extremely valuable to wildlife. Berries help sustain migrating birds as they make their way to the south. Fruit is eaten by Cedar Waxwings, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Northern Flickers, Northern Mockingbirds, Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrashers, Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins, Hermit Thrush, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, Wood Thrush, Eastern Phoebe, White-eyed Vireo, and White-Throated Sparrows. Ruffed Grouse, Bobwhite Quail, and Wild Turkey also enjoy the fruit.

Foliage is food source for rabbits and deer, and seeds enjoyed by White-footed mice.

Common Winterberry is pollinated by bees and possibly flies. The Tridentate Miner bee (Andrena tridens), and Virginia Miner Bee (Andrena virginiana) are visitors of the flowers.

Maintenance Tips:

Prune to shape in early spring just before new growth appears using the heading cuts method of pruning.


Occasional disease problems include leaf spots and powdery mildew. Plants do poorly in neutral to alkaline soils where they are susceptible to chlorosis and often die, so make sure Winterberry is sited in more moist, acidic soils.

Leaf Lore:

Genus comes from Latin name Quercus ilex for Holm Oak in reference to foliage similarities. Holm Oak and many shrubs in genus Ilex have evergreen leaves. The specific epithet verticillata is Latin for “whorled” in reference to the arrangement of sessile fruits in pseudo-whorls around the stem. The common name winterberry refers to the showy berries that persist throughout winter, often into early spring.

Indigenous peoples have used parts of Ilex verticillata as a remedy for fever and skin ailments. The Iroquois used the bark as a treatment for ‘craziness’ and as an emetic. The plant was also used to ease nausea and hay fever. The Ojibwa used the bark for treatment of diarrhea.

Companion Plants:

Common Winterberry is found in native, boggy areas, commonly in White Pine, Red Pine, or Maple swamps/communities. Combine with other moisture-loving shrubs such as Redosier Dogwood, Running Serviceberry, or Common Ninebark. Perennial companions include Red Milkweed, Spotted Joe-Pye Weed, Cardinal Flower, White Turtlehead, Shreve’s Iris, or any number of ferns such as Lady Fern or Christmas Fern.

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