Winterberry Wonders

Every fall I’m on the lookout for winterberry, a shrub that belongs to the holly family. It grows wild in wet and swampy places. At North Pond there is one astounding bush that is full of so many berries that it’s almost impossible to see the underlying branches even when they’re full of leaves. Because I have a friend who lives right there I am gifted with a few sprigs each fall during the month of November. 

This year, by the time I got my clippers together I had missed the best of the show. The birds had gotten there before I did, although I got a couple of pictures and spent more than just a few minutes admiring those brilliant red berries. This has been a dry summer and many birds haven’t had the luxury of having as many seeds and berries available as usual. Since I knew this fact about my avian friends it was my fault that I didn’t get my usual sprigs! I would like to know which birds got the bounty because one day the bush was overflowing, and two days later the berries were too sparse to pick.

 I know a few other local places to go to get the berries but this year my attempts to secure even a modest amount met with failure. The moist damp places I investigated were dry. Add to this the fact that these wild bushes don’t always bloom profusely every year. They have their own cycle – one year on – and one year off as near as I can determine. When I went to see the Sand hill cranes in early October I saw many low lying winterberry bushes that were already full of berries. But that was in Fryeburg, not here.

Most years I create an outdoor bouquet of evergreens interspersed with scarlet (or sunset orange) sprigs and leave it in a place where the grouse and robins will be able to feast at leisure. The berries are so popular with wildlife that more than forty species of our birds eat them! One species can congregate  on a bush for an edible celebration and strip it at a single sitting! Bluebirds, woodpeckers, and cedar waxwings are just a few other birds that find these berries irresistible. During the winter months, mammals, like moose deer and rabbits eat the stems and leaves of this bush that grows to a height of about 10 to 15 feet.

I find it interesting that as appealing as this wild holly is to birds that humans need to be wary – we can be poisoned by the berries.

Winterberry is native to eastern North America and Canada. It’s still fairly abundant in the wild and is most frequently found in swampy woodland and wetland areas. Actually, I have never come across any of these bushes in any area that is dry.

I have a couple of winterberry bushes on my land but they don’t get enough sun to thrive, and I am loathe to cut the trees around them.

 Winterberry is hardy enough to survive the toughest of Maine winters. When the shrub isn’t “berrying” its hard to see it because even when it’s flowering the blossoms are small. It doesn’t stand out from other wild plants; instead it blends seamlessly into woodland areas during the spring and summer. But after a hard frost has turned the leaves black the winterberry becomes incredibly startling to my artist’s eye because its slender junco gray branches stand out in stark relief to those clusters of crimson jewels.For those who might like to grow their own winterberry garden centers and nurseries offer a number of cultivars, some of which are quite small. It’s important to note that the berries form only on female shrubs that must be fertilized by a male – It takes about three years to ascertain which bush is which so be sure to take that fact into account should you choose to buy a pair of bushes. Remember too that winterberry thrives in wet ground. If you decide to grow this lovely shrub your avian friends will thank you!

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