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Enjoying Winterberries

Berried shrubs are often overlooked as a garden addition, but in fall and winter, there is nothing more beautiful than seeing bright red berries dotting the landscapes all around the island.  Ilex verticillata, better known as Winterberry, thrives in Nantucket yards, gardens and wild areas, especially in swampy or wet areas and at the edges of woods. The old timers used to say that the more berries there are in fall, the tougher the winter was going to be.  The reasoning behind that old wives’ tale is the birds will need more food to see them through the winter when it’s going to be very cold. Other Nantucket lore has it that when there are more tent caterpillars in the trees in summer, there will be more scallops in the harbor that winter. I’m a little stumped on the ecological reasoning behind that one, but I digress.

Ilex is native through the entire Eastern half of North America. Thriving in acidic soil, it is a perfect plant for Nantucket. Ilex doesn’t succumb to diseases or pests and the shrubs live many years.  If you want to plant some in your yard, be sure the area is wetter, rather than drier.  It is most interesting to look at after the foliage falls and the bright red berries sit on the bare branches. There are named varieties that are available from local nurseries and ‘Winter Red’ is considered one of the best.  The glossy bright red berries are not only a favored food for birds, but the branches make beautiful fall decorations.  In order to form berries, male varieties of Ilex need to be nearby. This is not a problem on Nantucket, as this deciduous holly is found everywhere.  Berries appear in late summer and last until the birds have eaten them, or until every household on Nantucket has cut them to decorate their window boxes, whichever comes first.

As I walk my favorite paths through the fall, I am often dismayed that collectors will completely decimate an ilex shrub in order to adorn their window boxes and pots, particularly when picking from public or conservation property.  Karen Beattie, the Science & Stewardship Department Manager at the Nantucket Conservation shares my concern.  While they don’t have a policy specific to winterberry, their general policy is as follows:  "Cutting and removing plants or disturbing soils is prohibited."  Winterberry is an important food source for birds, so I follow the motto “take only pictures and leave only footprints” when treading on conservation or public property.

That said, gathering winterberry for holiday decorations is somewhat of a tradition for many cold-climate dwellers.  Plenty of folks have Ilex planted on their property and will pick a select few branches that will not damage the overall shape of the plant, and will leave food for the birds. Ilex doesn’t actually need to be pruned, and this shrub is most glorious when allowed to achieve its full height of up to 15 feet. 

Enjoy nature’s gift of Winterberries as you walk in your favorite spots this fall and winter.  But please don’t pick them from public property or conservation lands. They really are beautiful in the wild and they help sustain birds during migration and through the winter.