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Native Winterberry Provides Winter Color & Wildlife Food

If you take a walk in the woods this winter, keep an eye out for a flash of brilliant red color. Take a look in areas with wet soils — as along streams, moist forests, or even at the edge of a swamp — you might find a shrub that is covered in bright red berries. It’s hard to miss the clusters of brilliant red on the bare branches.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a deciduous holly, so it loses its leaves in the fall but maintains the red drupes that give it its name. It grows best in moist soil in part shade and can reach a height of about 7 to 10 feet.

Like all hollies, winterberry shrubs are separated into male and female plants. If you add this shrub in your backyard, you’ll need one male plant for every three or five female plants to get adequate berries. Males need to be planted within 40 feet of females for adequate pollination to occur.

Wildlife Value of Winterberry

The USDA reports that the berries of the winterberry provide food for small mammals and over 48 bird species. While the berries are low in fat content, they provide a valuable source of food in the winter, when other sources of food are scarce.

Some of the bird species that eat the berries of winterberry include eastern bluebirds, hermit thrushes, wood thrushes, American robins, catbirds, northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers, cedar waxwings, and white-tailed sparrows.

Raccoons and mice are known to feed on the berries in winter as well.

The leaves and stems are not a preferred food for white-tailed deer, but they will browse them in winter, as will rabbits.

The flowers of the winterberry shrub provide nectar for butterflies. The leaves are a host for the Henry’s elfin butterfly (Callophrys henrici).

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