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Winterberry (What Time is it in Nature)

December 19, 2014

Today’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Terra Meares, citizen science volunteer and former intern at Prairie Ridge! Terra is a student at North Carolina State University majoring in Plant and Soil Science with a concentration in Crop Biotechnology and is minoring in Environmental Toxicology.

The leaves have nearly all fallen here at Prairie Ridge and although winter is soon upon us, there is still much to see! Amongst the frosty backdrop of the prairie nothing stands out more than the festive scarlet red fruit of the Winterberry (Ilex verticillata).

Winterberry shrub and closeup of berries

Winterberry (also known as Black Alder, False Alder, Canada Holly, and Fever Bush) is a slow-growing holly that can reach 15 feet in height. The plant exhibits shiny, dark green, football-shaped leaves about 2-4 inches in length with serrated edges. After the leaves have emerged in the spring, very small greenish to creamy-white flowers will bloom between April and July. The leaves turn yellow in the fall, though this unique form of holly is deciduous and will lose it’s leaves by mid-October. When this occurs, the showy red berries stand out prominently among the bare branches. The small, round berries are about 1/4 inch in diameter, usually occur in pairs, and contain 3-5 small seeds. They start off green and mature to an orange or vibrant red in late August to early September, but will remain on the plant well into the winter. Like most hollies, Winterberry is dioecious, which means that there are separate male and female plants. In order to have successful pollination and bear fruit you must have at least one male plant for every three to five female plants. Male and female plants must be carefully paired up or there may be little to no fruit production.

Winterberry is native to eastern North America and parts of Canada. The plant does best in moist, acidic soils in full sun and can tolerate poor drainage. Ideal locations occur near swamps, streams, river banks, lakes, or ponds, though this plant can handle partial shade and dry, non-alkaline soils as well. The Winterberry has relatively few pests and only minor issues with leaf spots and powdery mildew. In their natural environment, the plants reproduce by seeds or suckers, but most cultivars are propagated by rooted stem cuttings and can be found in your local nursery. Just be sure to get both male and female plants if you want them to produce fruit!

Native Americans historically used Winterberry as a medicine (hence the common name Fever Bush) and the bark has been used to heal cuts and bruises, though Winterberry fruits are poisonous to humans. The berries are, however, as an essential winter food source for small mammals and nearly 50 documented species of birds, including Eastern Bluebirds, Wild Turkeys, and quail. Winterberry also provides nesting sites, cover for wildlife, nectar for insects, and acts as a larval host plant for the Henry’s Elfin Butterfly.

Even during the brisk days of winter, there is still plenty to see here at Prairie Ridge. During your next visit, bring a mug of hot chocolate or warm apple cider to enjoy while meandering through the arboretum.  You won’t want to miss the spectacular crimson fruit of the Winterberries and the plethora of birds they attract!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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