Caring for a winterberry bush is easy, and its vibrant show of berries will provide a feast for the eyes in the winter landscape, as well as a feast for the birds. Branches can be cut and brought indoors for use in winter arrangements and holiday decorations. Hardy between zones 3 and 9, winterberry (illex verticillata) is a deciduous holly and, like many other Ilex species, it is also dioecious, meaning it needs both a male and female plant in order to produce fruit.
‘Winter Red,’ a commonly found cultivar, is popular for its particularly persistent berries and reaches a mature height of nine feet. ‘Afterglow’ has long-lasting berries that are slightly orange-ish. ‘Chrysocarpa’ gets yellow berries, which birds prefer less than red or orange, and means they’ll stay on the bush longer. ‘Red Sprite’ is a more compact cultivar, with a mature height of three to four feet. Male cultivars include ‘Jim Dandy’ and ‘Southern Gentleman,’ and, for the cinematically inclined, plant ‘Scarlett O’Hara’ with ‘Rhett Butler.’ Males should flower at the same time as females; check with your local nursery for appropriate mates.
Winterberry holly can tolerate up to a half-day of shade but, for the best fruit production, give it as much sun as possible. It prefers soils on the acid side, but will do fine in soils with a neutral pH. Winterberry thrives in moist, almost wet soils but can tolerate medium-dry conditions once established. The moister the site, however, the more winterberry will produce suckers and spread. Be sure to select a site where winterberry holly can be enjoyed during the winter months, such as in the front yard or in the site line of a window.
The most important aspect of winterberry care is watering. Be sure to water regularly the first year in your garden while the shrub is becoming established. It must be watered deeply to encourage strong root growth. In subsequent years, supplement with additional watering in times of drought. To control size, prune out suckers at the base.