Cold nights, bursts of color: ‘tis the season for winterberries

Published on: December 16, 2022 12:11 PM EST|Updated on: December 16, 2022 4:54 PM EST

On the left is an American Beautyberry bush; in the middle and on the right are a selection of winterberries, all seen at Cylburn Arboretum.
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As freezing fog envelops Baltimore, Maryland reveals its jewels.

Glistening fruit is all around us — that halo of red over the grove of green hawthorns, those purple clusters gleaming from native beautyberries on the median of St. Paul Street, or the sunset-hued winterberry holly. Winterberries in particular seem miraculous.

Unlike evergreen hollies with serrated leaves that are as much an attraction as the fruit, the native wintergreen shrub (ilex verticillata), is deciduous. In spring, the small flowers are unremarkable. For the summer garden, the bushes provide green fill for a hedgerow, no more. Then, in the darkest days of winter, their boughs are the unrivaled stars of the landscape — laden with red berries in the wild, along with the gold and yellow ones carefully selected and propagated over the years by nurseries.

If you like them, there are any number of ways to bring them home. Here are a handful:

Cut branches, garlands and wreaths

No single vendor covers the bases of how hollies might be used as decoration better than McLean Nurseries in Parkville. As winter solstice approaches, this nursery revered for its introductions of hollies such as ”Miss Helen” and ”Satyr Hill,” is in full-on cut-berry mode.

Owners, staff and friends gather in a shed near the entrance of the 9-acre grounds to work on the more than 400 custom wreaths that they will sell until the floral side of the business closes on Dec. 24. It’s so seasonal — even the dog slumbering at their feet is called Garland. They also sell plain wreaths, and your choice of berry embellishment.

McLean’s owners joke that while they harvest berry-laden holly branchlets from the bottom of the trees, hungry birds race them to glean from the top. “It’s OK,” said co-owner Miriam Miceli. “We can’t reach the top anyway.”

They are almost sold out of red, yellow and orange winterberries, but have a stunning variety of evergreen holly branches with yellow and red berries in stock for $5/lb.

At Baltimore-area Trader Joe’s locations, buckets containing winterberry boughs empty as fast as they are filled, even at $7.99 for three branchlets. Never accept defeat at the sight of an empty bucket. Always ask staff if there are more in back. There often is.

Kept hydrated, winterberries and evergreen hollies will make it through the holidays indoors, but it is outdoors that they are happiest, either tucked in wreaths or studded in planters and around the landscape. Kathy Phillips — a partner with fellow designer Krista Smith in a new firm, Fleurish — thinks nothing of going beyond the vase or wreath. It’s a signature move to stud winter planters with cut winterberry branches. This year, she’s even planting winterberry bouquets at the feet of winterberry bushes.

Grow your own

An intrepid, if not foolproof, way to beat the winterberry shopping rush is to grow your own. (You could do worse this season if you’re looking for cut berries than buying a whole bush for roughly $30, cutting the berry boughs for use in displays and then planting the bush — either fast before the ground freezes, or in the spring.)

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But, if you’re going the grow-your-own route, be sure to buy two plants. Winterberries, like most hollies, are “dioecious” — you will need the female plant to carry the berries, and the male one as a pollinator. Most nurseries will sell companion pollinators; Jim Dandy is a common early bloomer, and “Southern Gentleman” is a late-blooming plant.

Timing is delicate. It may take them up to three years to become established. Prune old wood in late winter or early spring and look for blossoms on new growth, advises McLean horticulturist William Kuhl.

Before you plant whichever holly or berry bush you choose for a garden, visit our local living plant library, Cylburn Arboretum in Northwest Baltimore, and the U.S. National Arboretum in northeast D.C. These are the two best-kept secrets in our region. Admission: free. Access: roving. Wear grubby clothes, because getting to the identification tag of your ideal holly might require some squirming around in the mud.

Armed with a short list of plants that you liked at an arboretum, you should then go to a commercial nursery. We are lucky in the Baltimore region to have many good nurseries and growers. Knowledgeable staff at Sun Nurseries in Woodbine allow shoppers through their winter greenhouses while they do the winter business of pruning, potting and propagating.

Purple berries

In a city where Ravens fans bleed purple, it’s Sod’s law that the exotic purple-fruited beautyberry (callicarpa japonica) has better form than the native callicarpa americana. Ask garden designers about it and they’ll complain that our native purple berry, much like our football team, has some structural weaknesses: big berries, and tall floppy branches.

Granted, the exotic callicarpa japonica is handsome. Go no further than the display in front of the Cylburn mansion to see how effective they can look when, mixed with a white-berried selection, they are massed in a group.

Birds do spread them, said head gardener Brent Figlestahler, but he hasn’t noticed them becoming invasive. But think of planting it as rooting for Philly — and instead, consider our relatively gawky but luscious native at the back of a mixed bed where its flopping will look companionable with neighboring plants, but not weak. Plant both, as I did — it was instructive to see birds strongly prefer the native berry.

Berries in planters and containers

Inkberries (ilex glabra) are gorgeous shrubs, with dense, round glossy green canopies that have been celebrated as disease-free successors to boxwood. The selection ”Compacta” works well in large planters. There’s only one problem: no berries.

There is such a chronic shortage of male pollinators for these stubbornly un-promiscuous evergreen female hollies that gardeners in search of them would do well to get on a waiting list as Kollar Nursery in Pylesville propagates cuttings this winter. It’s a collective failure of the native plant movement that even halo-burnishing nonprofits such as Herring Run Nursery don’t bother supplying males while selling the plants as a source of berries for birds.

Until we right that imbalance, a small compensation would be to tuck a fringe of American wintergreen around the edges of a pot. This quietly ravishing evergreen groundcover does have berries — big juicy red ones — and its lateral ways means that it can tumble down around the sides of the pot in a romantic fashion.

When crushed, the leaves and the berries of American wintergreen have the scent of a mint Life Saver. It makes a perfect cold season feature. Birds may curse the lack of berries on the bush above it, and who could blame them? On the bright side, they will do it with minty fresh breath.

Where to buy/resources:

  • McLean Nurseries, 9000 Satyr Hill Road, Parkville, 21234, open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until Dec. 24, then nursery hours seasonally, (410) 882-6714.
  • Trader Joe’s, open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., has locations in Towson, Pikesville and Elkridge.
  • Sun Nurseries, 14790 Bushy Park Road, Woodbine, 21797 (410) 442-2090.
  • Cylburn Arboretum, 4915 Greenspring Ave., Baltimore, 21207 (410) 367-2217, open Tuesdaythrough Sunday 8 a.m. to5 p.m. (winter hours)
  • U.S. National Arboretum, 3501 New York Ave., NE Washington, D.C. 20002, (202) 245-4523, open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except Dec. 25.

Emily Green is a freelance writer based in Baltimore. Her writing on urban gardening may be found at www.chanceofrain.com.