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Winterberry’s great balls of fire blaze in January’s pale sunlight

Winterberry holly brightens up a gray winter.
Winterberry holly brightens up a gray winter. The Washington Post

We are told that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The gardener, who is more attuned to light and shadow than most, knows that this idea is off quite a bit at this time of year.

In early winter, the sun clings to the southern horizon and sleeps a lot. This skulking can have its benefits. In the mornings now, the sun creeps around my neighbor’s shed to throw light on a stand of winterberry hollies in a far corner of the garden.

These are the hollies that are naked in winter except for generous clusters of large red berries. After a few years, they are 8 feet tall, 6 feet across and heavy with fruit.

The gardener will take any shrub that peaks in January, and the winterberry holly and its related hollies don’t hold back. It falls to the gardener to position them where the berries can be illuminated by the low sun. Putting them in a dark corner would reduce the berry set and also rob the holly of its dazzling display.

Only the plants with female flowers produce fruit, but you have to add a male to the mix. I planted three fruiting winterberries along with a single non-fruiting male, positioned on the edge of the display. In May, the bees in search of nectar take the pollen from the male and fertilize the female blossoms. By late summer, the fruit is conspicuous even though the shrubs are smothered in pretty, elliptical leaves, free of the spines we associate with holly. The foliage turns yellow in the fall and looks good amid the bright red berries, but the plant comes into its own once the leaves drop. Suddenly, the branches seem to have captured strings of pearls that have fallen to earth, except they’re red.

I planted these shrubs five years ago, and the first year I wondered if they were going to survive because they were half dead. Winterberries are native to wetlands and heartily dislike dry conditions, especially when it’s hot. (This makes them a great choice for problem wet areas of the yard). I watered them when I remembered but because they were out of the way, they were neglected for the most part. For the first few years there was little fruit. Last year, lo, they put on a good show. This year, they are spectacular. Moral: Plant for tomorrow, not today.

Winter weather can enhance the show. Against a backdrop of snow, they pop. Encased in ice, they are jewellike.

The species winterberry, Ilex verticillata, is found in wetlands from Nova Scotia to Texas, but there is a great variation and unpredictability in habit, size and even leaf shape, so garden winterberries tend to be named varieties. Horticulturists divide them into southern types, vigorous with fewer darker stems, and northern types, with slower growth, earlier flowering and smaller leaves.

It’s important to get a male plant that blooms at the right time. For southern types that would be Southern Gentleman, for northern ones, Jim Dandy.

My winterberries came to me in unnamed varieties, though I suspect they are the popular cultivar known as Winter Red, chosen for its dark, glossy leaves and large, vivid red fruits.

Growers who raise winterberry for florists’ cut sprays like the early season varieties such as Maryland Beauty and Christmas Cheer. A number of more compact varieties are available for smaller gardens, though you’d still need a second, male plant for fruit.

The most common of these is Red Sprite, whose oversized fruit appears on a shrub that is just 3 to 4 feet tall. A variety named La Have is even smaller.

Sparkleberry was developed at the National Arboretum by crossing the winterberry with its Chinese cousin, Ilex serrata. The resulting plant has glossy red fruit that is large and remarkably persistent through the winter months. Its male consort is Apollo.

Both are for large gardens; they grow 12 feet high and as wide.

Another native deciduous holly is sometimes grown ornamentally. The possumhaw holly, Ilex decidua, is valued for its smooth gray bark texture and fruiting habit, but it is too big and perhaps too coarse for the small home garden. Warren’s Red is a classic variety that grows to 12 or 15 feet.

All these deciduous hollies benefit from some pruning. Mine are reaching a stage where some of the older stems should be removed and most of the suckers cut away. Because they have grown into such valuable winter plants, they also deserve to be aesthetically pruned to remove congested and rubbing branches. This should be done in late winter or early spring, leaving enough older wood for plenty of spring blossoms for next winter’s berry show.

For some reason, the birds and the squirrels have left the winterberry display untouched (so far), and are happy instead to nibble away at the berries in the old American hollies along another side of the garden.

I have three fruiting trees left from a screen or hedge that was planted decades ago by a previous occupant. Evergreen hollies, incidentally, are one of the few evergreens in our part of the world that hold up to formal clipping. One of the most finely textured and elegant screens I have seen was a row of clipped Foster’s No. 2 hollies in a city garden. But such green architecture requires some skill, a love of ladders and continual maintenance.

Besides, the world seems to be moving away from such formality in the garden. If you have a bit of space for two or more medium-sized shrubs, winterberry hollies will lend an air of native beauty and provide a path through the darkness of the season now upon us.

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