GREEN THOUGHTS: Leafless along the trail

Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata). Photo contributed

I LIKE BIKES AND I LIKE BOTANY, and the two merge into one great outdoor activity. Identifying plants, seeing what’s in bloom, and silently critiquing home landscapes is fun from a bicycle seat. Now that the Albany-Hudson Electric Trail (AHET) is mostly open, there’s new territory to explore, and I’ve discovered some stands of an old-time favorite, winterberry holly.

To get to know winterberry, or Ilex verticillata, you’ve first got to deal with an apparent conundrum: it’s a deciduous holly, dropping its leaves in fall. While most hollies are prized for their evergreen foliage, winterberry gets naked, but that makes its vibrant orange-red berries stand out all the more. These same strikingly bright fruits also label it a 55 mile per hour plant, since motoring botanists can identify it from a distance without applying the brakes. In summer winterberry goes incognito, its plain green foliage blending with the roadside crowd.

Native to much of the eastern United States, winterberry isn’t abundant locally. Most other hollies require good drainage, so winterberry’s preference for wet feet is another sign that it’s a bit of an odd duck in the Ilex clan. Dampish places of all sorts line the AHET, so it isn’t a surprising find along there, but since it is rather scarce I won’t spill the plant’s exact locations. Winterberry’s penchant for water also means you can use a canoe to see it. Back in 1988, I spent a wonderful weekend in the northern Michigan wetlands, canoeing, camping and cavorting with fellow horticulture graduate students, and the most abundant plant we saw was winterberry. It’s so plentiful there that folks from the Wolverine State sometimes call it Michigan Holly, but you would never hear a New Yorker call it so.

With eye-catching fruits, which persist for a good part of the dormant season, winterberry brightens up any drab outdoor space. Luckily, you don’t need swampy soil to grow it, as it will adapt to most sites, except the most alkaline. I’ve got two winterberries growing well where a spruce once towered, and they’ve finally got enough height and fruit to make a show. Like other hollies, the sexes are housed on different plants, and to get berries, you must plant females. Books instruct to plant a male nearby, since a male must do what needs to be done. But here’s another mystery. Both of my winterberries make fruits a-plenty, but I’ve not planted a male, and I know of none nearby. Bees, it turns out, are the answer. Bees can carry holly pollen for a quarter of a mile, so if bloom time, weather, and bee activity are all in sync, the deed may be done by a distant him.

Plant breeders have been busy bees, and have created dozens of permutations on winterberry: short plant, tall plant, and fruit in many sizes and hues. ‘Sparkleberry,’ a red-fruited form developed at the National Arboretum, is the most popular, but they’re all worth exploring, whether you ride a bicycle or not.

To contact David Chinery, horticulture educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email

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