Winterberry Holly Guide: How To Grow, Plant, Care for Winterberry Shrubs

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Gardening | March 28, 2024

Person points to a winterberry holly after learning how to identify winterberry shrubs, how to grow and plant winterberry bushes, and how to care for winterberry plants.

Ilex Verticillata or Winterberry holly is a distinctive North American plant. During the winter it bears vibrant scarlet-red berries which are a symbol of the holidays and lend color to outdoor spaces during the winter.

This Winterberry symbolism has made it a garden favorite.4

But, if you’ve every wondered how exactly you can identify Winterberry Holly, this complete guide explains exactly what to look for. And, it provides practical tips for planting your own winter berry bushes so that you can enjoy that beauty during the cold winter months.

The most important thing to remember is that, if you want red berries during the winter you will need both a female and a male plant which bloom at the same time in the spring.1

Winterberry Holly

(Ilex Verticillata)

Winterberry holly in an oval frame on green background.
  • Family: Aquifoliaceae
  • Genus: Ilex
  • Leaf: Glossy green
  • Bark: Thin, grey-brown
  • Seed: Tiny, pale, shaped like garlic cloves
  • Blossoms: Small white flowers
  • Fruit: Small, bead-sized, red
  • Native Habitat: Eastern North America
  • Height: 1 to 5 meters
  • Canopy: 1 to 5 meters
  • Type: Deciduous
  • Native Growing Zone: 3 to 9

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Ranking

Least Concern

NE
DD
LC
NT
VU
EN
CR
EW
EX

Image Credit: Bernell MacDonald (Bernell)10

How To Identify Winterberry

Winterberry holly has several distinctive features. Its appearance will change by season.

Of course, the most distinctive feature is the red color of the berries in the winter.

Winterberry Leaves

Winterberry leaves are a distinct dark green. They usually have a glossy appearance and can be on average about 3-9 centimeters long. They usually have a slightly jagged edge and end in a point. During late fall the leaves will start to fall leaving female plants with bare stems holding red berries

Winterberry Flower

The flowers appear only for an extremely short time. They are small and white. The insides will look slightly different depending on whether the plant is a male or female.

Holly Berries (Winterberry Seeds)

As the name suggests, the most prominent feature of the Winterberry are the berries.5 They are roughly spherically small and red. They look like vibrant little beads about 7mm in diameter.

Graphics showing how to identify Winterberry with images of winterberry leaves, winterberry flower, and winterberry seeds along with a chart of the plant's average annual extreme minimum temperature.

(Flowers Image: Fritzflohrreynolds9)

They can appear in late fall and last for months, lending color to winter gardens. Since Winterberry is a dioecious plant, both genders are required to produce fruit. Inside the fruit are tiny seeds which may be eaten by animals or insects.

It is not advised for people or pets including cats dogs or horses to consume the berries as they contain harmful organics.

Coralberry

Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) can sometimes be mistaken for Winterberry, or vica verca, creating identification problems. Some differences are that coralberry leaves are duller than glossy Winterberry leaves, and of course, the coralberry fruit is purple.

Winterberry Bush

Winterberry plants can be very unassuming before the fruit arrives. They can range from a few dozen centimeters tall to over a meter high, and so do not have impressively thick branches or trunks.1

Common Winterberry (Winterberry Varieties)

There are several varieties of Winterberry available. Some have fruit with alternative colors to the traditional red. Most people will choose based on fruit color and overall plant size, but another important factor is tree pollination.

Female plants must have the right male partner for pollination. And both plants need to have open flowers in the spring. The two should be located within 50 feet of each other.

Growing a Winterberry From a Seed, Cutting, or Seedling

You might be wondering how long it takes to grow Winterberry or when to plant Winterberry for the best yield.6 Fortunately, growing Winterberry is usually a relatively straightforward process.

First, it is important to buy both male and female plants that will bloom at the same time. Nurseries that sell Winterberry holly should show plant gender so that you can buy both.

Even so, it is difficult to ensure that they will bloom at the same time, so you may have to wait for the second year to see berries.

How far apart to plant Winterberry plants of different genders should be less than fifty feet. This will all but ensure pollination which leads to berry production. It’s also good to live close to a bee population for this purpose, but birds or other insects can do the job as well.

You can propagate these plants by seed, but that is a difficult process. Usually, they are propagated by cuttings of the roots and stems. These are stronger and will grow faster.

The best time to plant them is late spring.

To obtain a cutting, find a suitable plant and use a pair of shears to trim a few stems off of a mature female shrub. The cuttings should be 2-3 inches long and you should leave only the top pair of leaves on it.

Then you can place it into potting soil and keep it in a warm environment, watering to keep the soil moist, but drained. After one month, you can water every other day, and by fall the plant should be ready to go into the ground.

How much sunlight does Winterberry need each day? The answer is that full sunlight is best. It can do with a minimum of around four to six hours, but if possible place it for maximum sun.

The watering needs for Winterberry plants are dependent on location. They can deal with fairly wet conditions as long as they can drain. Mature plants can do with watering around once a week in summer as long as the soil is not extremely dry.

Watering a tree should always be done thoroughly around the edge of the canopy to make sure it develops a deep and wide root system. Soil needs within the growing zone are also fairly tolerant.

Winterberry holly does best in acidic loam that has decent organics. Usually, fertilization is not required.2

Best Growing Conditions for Winterberry

Winterberry is a relatively hardy plant within its growing zones. It should be planted in a full-sun location that drains well, although it can tolerate some moisture. It does well with soil acidity but if you are nervous you can check the soil to make sure it’s between 3.5 and 6.

A young winterberry plant growing beside a pond, an ideal winterberry growing zone.

(Photo by David J. Stang11)

If it needs more acidity you can work in some peat moss or granular sulfur. During the initial stages of planting the soil should be watered frequently.

Winterberry Growing Zone

Winterberry holly grows over an enormous amount of North America, mostly focused on the Atlantic seaboard.

The growing and planting zones for Winterberry where to grow stretches down from Eastern Canada to the southern US as far west as Texas. This includes USDA zones 3-9. Outside of this zone, they may require extra care to be cultivated reliably.

Winterberry Growth Rate

If you want to grow a tree or holly plant you might be wondering how long does it take for a tree to grow. Winterberry holly can grow from between a foot to two feet a year. This is based on the total height and width of the plant.

Accounting for all stem growth the number would be much higher. If you are starting from seed, it can take a while for the growth rate to reach these numbers. For faster growing start with a root or stem cutting.

Winterberry in Summer

Winterberry does most of its growing through the spring and summer when it produces glossy dark green leaves. It is recommended to plant fresh cuttings in the late spring.

Winterberry in Fall

Fall is when the leaves start to fall and the bright red winter berries appear. For many people, it is the time when Winterberry stops being a plain green plant, and starts becoming a main feature of its outdoor environment.

Winterberry in Winter

By winter the plant will probably have lost all of its leaves and only the berries will remain. They can last throughout the whole winter, depending on if they are eaten by animals or are damaged due to weather. Bright red berries on a bare plant is a classic holiday image associated with Winterberry.

A Winterberry tree with a dense canopy of yellow and red leaves in fall.

(Image: Famartin8)

Many people will cut berry branches and include them in bouquets for a beautiful natural winter look.

Companion Plants for Growing Winterberry

Of course, the most important companion plants for Winterberry holly plants are other Winterberry holly plants. The females need males blooming simultaneously nearby to produce their beautiful berries in the spring. So they should be planted in at least pairs.

You may also be considering landscaping trees around them like alder trees. This can be a good idea aesthetically, just make sure the holly is still in a place where it can get six hours of sun per day. It doesn’t like too much shade. If you want year-round color you can plant Winterberry with daffodils or other bright flowers to make an area that will have color year round.

How To Stop Winterberry Disease

Winterberry is not considered really susceptible to disease or pests. Common diseases could be leaf diseases or root rot. Leaf diseases can be treated with a natural horticultural oil and root rot is usually improved with better drainage.

Common pests of the Winterberry are common pests for any North American garden like leafminers or mites. These can again be dealt with using an essential oil like lavender. This is the best natural pest control for Winterberry, but usually will not be necessary.3

Winterberry Without Berries

If you see a Winterberry plant without berries in the late fall to early winter, there are a few potential causes.7

Number one, if you purchased your plants that year, they were likely kept in a greenhouse over the previous winter. This may have altered their blooming cycle so that they actually bloomed before you purchased them, and there was no pollination. Both male and female plants should have simultaneous bloom for pollination.

The good news is that such plants should produce fruit next year.

Second, maturity is always a factor. First-year winter berries can bloom, but the fruits are usually at their best 2-3 years after the plant is established in the ground.

Third are potential stress problems, especially due to drought. Mulch can help the soil beneath your Winterberry retain more moisture. Another is lack of sun.

Winter Berries are fine with some shade, but with too much shade, flowering and fruiting can be seriously limited or even shut out. Make sure your Winterberry is getting plenty of sun.

Fourth is that there are no nearby male plants to pollinate your female plant, or that nearby males did not bloom at the same time as your female to pollinate it.

If you need to identify male versus female plants, the best way is to simply look at the blooming flowers in spring. Female flowers will have a green nub in the center. That bit is the baby berry. By contrast, male flowers have empty centers and fluffy pollen antlers.2

Can You Eat Winterberry Seeds?

The leaves, bark, and seeds of the Winterberry plant all contain substances that should probably not be eaten by humans. They contain Theobromine which is very similar to caffeine but can cause adverse reactions like dizziness, and diarrhea. Such toxic alkaloids are found in all types of trees in the holly family.

They are also poisonous to cats, dogs, and horses. The greatest concentration of these toxins is in the berries of the Winterberry Holly bush, so be careful they are not eaten by you or your pets.

Frequently Asked Questions About Winterberry

Why Do the Female Flowers Have Pollen Antlers Too?

Female Winterberry flowers often have such antlers to attract bees. They pretend to be male flowers, tempting bees with the promise of pollen and nectar in order to get pollen from nearby male plants.

Is Winterberry Poisonous?

Winterberry plants do contain substances that can cause adverse health effects in humans, cats and dogs. These toxins are found in the highest concentrations in berries.

Will Animals Eat Winterberry?

Birds will eat Winterberry but usually not before the berries have been softened by cycles of freezing and subsequent thaw. Other animals may snack on them too but deer usually will not.


References

1Hirvela, Stacey. Date Unknown. “Ultimate Guide to Winterberry Holly” Proven Winners. 13 December 2023. Web. <https://www.provenwinners.com/learn/plant-growing-guide/ultimate-guide-Winterberry-holly>

2Beaulieu, David. 11/26/23. “How to Grow and Care for Winterberry Holly” The Spruce. 13 December 2023. Web. <https://www.thespruce.com/Winterberry-holly-shrubs-2131220>

3Wolfe, Judy Dec 1, 2012 . “Diseases of Winterberry Holly Plants” Week And. 13 December 2023. Web. <https://www.weekand.com/home-garden/article/diseases-Winterberry-holly-plants-18029358.php>

4Winterberry. (n.d.). Extension.umn.edu. <https://extension.umn.edu/trees-and-shrubs/winterberry>

5Ilex verticillata (Black Alder, Common Winterberry, Winterberry, Winterberry Holly) | North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. (n.d.). Plants.ces.ncsu.edu. <https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/ilex-verticillata/>

6COMMON WINTERBERRY Ilex verticillata (L.) Gray Plant Symbol = ILVE. (n.d.). <https://plants.usda.gov/DocumentLibrary/factsheet/pdf/fs_ilve.pdf>

7Winterberry | Horticulture, Landscape, and Environmental Systems | Nebraska. (n.d.). Hles.unl.edu. Retrieved December 21, 2023, from <https://hles.unl.edu/winterberry>

8Winterberry Holly in autumn Photo by Famartin / CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED | Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International. Resized and changed file format. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved January 5, 2024, from <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2023-11-13_15_05_59_A_Winterberry_Holly_in_autumn_at_the_Mountain_View_Golf_Course_in_the_Mountainview_section_of_Ewing_Township,_Mercer_County,_New_Jersey.jpg>

9Ilex verticillata – Winterberry, female Photo by Fritzflohrreynolds / CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED | Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported. Cropped, added texts, shapes, images, and background color elements, and changed file format. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved January 5, 2024, from <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ilex_verticillata_-_Winterberry,_female.jpg>

10Winterberry, Ilex verticillata, Grackle island Photo by Bernell MacDonald (Bernell). Cropped, added texts, shapes, and background color elements, and changed file format. Pixabay. Retrieved January 5, 2023, from <https://pixabay.com/photos/winterberry-ilex-verticillata-1880817/>

11Ilex verticillata f. chrysocarpa 2zz Photo by David J. Stang / CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED | Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International. Resized and changed file format. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved January 5, 2024, from <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ilex_verticillata_f._chrysocarpa_2zz.jpg>