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Winterberry hollies create a hillside of gold

The berries of the Winterberry Holly are known to feed 20 species of birds.

 (Norman Winter/TNS)
The berries of the Winterberry Holly are known to feed 20 species of birds. (Norman Winter/TNS)
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A hillside of gold in the Old Town community of North Columbus not only caught my eye but enticed me to get out of the car with my camera in hand. It was a hill planted with dozens of Winterberry hollies; and despite a fall season of high heat and drought, it was creating quite a show.

Winterberry, known botanically as Ilex verticillata, is native over a large area of the United States encompassing 33 states, and much of Canada. It feeds at least 20 species of birds and has been in cultivation since 1736. That’s heirloom status in my book.

It is known to have some fair fall leaf color, but this cluster was exceptional. The gold foliage and bright red berries were ever so picturesque. True to the species when the leaves fall, it will still make an incredible display with uncountable bright red berries ripening for Cedar Waxwings, Mockingbirds, and Cardinals. It is also known to be a valuable food source for Bobwhite Quail, Ruffled Grouse, and Ring-neck Pheasant in their native ranges.

I sometimes wonder why it is not more readily planted. Could, it be because it is deciduous? If you will pause and think, deciduous is not bad. You love the shimmering white blossoms of the spiraea, the cheerful yellow blooms of the forsythia, and the flaming orange of the native azalea. Why not gladly accept this holly that adorns itself with thousands of bright orange and red berries perfect for the Christmas season?

The berries persist for a long time on the branches, making it a great choice for bringing indoors for arrangements in a dried vase; or include on the mantle for an old-fashioned farmhouse Christmas. Though I am touting gold foliage and bright red fruit, there are many varieties including some with gold berries.

At the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens in Savannah, we grew Winterberry red and Winterberry gold and Southern gentleman as a pollinator. Proven Winners is offering Berry Heavy red and Berry Heavy gold as well as Mr. Poppins for pollination. You’ll want at least one male for every 10 female selections. Afterglow and Bright Horizon are also varieties you might find.

Regardless of the selection you make, plant in sun to partial sun and in the same places you might plant a crape myrtle. Use them to frame entryways for special accents or along driveways and around the patio. Anywhere the landscape looks drab in the winter is a great place for the winterberry holly to brighten. These will be shrub-like in form, reaching 5- to 8-feet in height.

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One well-known horticulturist and friend wrote, “You could garden for 12 lifetimes and never see an insect or disease bothering the plant.” Our berries are sure to get stripped by a host of birds but I think you will agree these are the type of invaders we are happy to see.

These native hollies do not like to dry out. They are at home in moist areas. If you normally have an abundance of berries, they can be lost if plants dry out. Although these are native it is a good idea to give them a little fertilizer in April and August.

Fall is an incredible time to plant, as you shop your garden-center they will be easy to find, they are the ones loaded with berries.

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