by Diane Constable
The winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a native shrub that can grow up to 15 feet tall and can be found in acidic soils in low areas, marshes and along streams in our area. It ranges across the eastern half of the United States and is also known as Michigan holly.
Like its close relative, the American holly, there are “male” and “female” plants. Both must be present for the small clustered white flowers to pollinate, but they need help in this area. The flowers put off a wonderful bee attractant that also lures in other pollinating insects to get the job done.
Its oblong leaves are thick and glossy, with slightly jagged edges. In the fall, the leaves turn black.
Winter is when this shrub is most attractive. The bright red quarter-inch berries stand out in contrast to the snow and dried grasses, giving our marshes some needed color throughout the cold winter season.
The berries supply food to at least 45 species of birds and many small mammals. They do not have a high fat content, so they are usually not eaten until late winter. The berries also can be slightly toxic to humans.
Fun Facts: Smaller cultivars of winterberry that are more tolerant of garden soils can be found at garden centers for home plantings.