Mickey Rathbun: It’s showtime for winterberry

  • Ice and snow coat the bright red berries of a holly plant. Tim Lescinski—Getty Images/iStockphoto

Published: 1/26/2017 2:20:28 PM

The landscape looks pretty somber these days, especially when it’s cold and gray. Even the evergreens appear nearly colorless under overcast skies. But the muted palette of winter provides the perfect foil for Ilex verticillata, the native shrub aptly known as winterberry.

You probably won’t notice winterberry for much of the year. It has smallish, oblong double-toothed leaves and small, inconspicuous white flowers that bloom in spring, no match for the dazzle of spring bulbs, azaleas and other blooming shrubs. But the plant comes into its own in the fall and winter, when it loses its leaves to reveal smooth, gray branches covered with brightly colored red berries.

It often grows in wet areas along roadsides. Its color is so dramatic that I can see it — a brilliant flash of red — as I’m speeding along the highway.

I am forever grateful to gardeners who include winterberry in their landscapes. There are quite a few in and around Amherst, including two lovely winterberries in the North Amherst Library garden that is tended by Nancy D’Amato of the Garden Club of Amherst.

Many small mammals and over 40 species of birds, including bluebirds, cedar waxwings and mockingbirds, like to snack on the berries, so their numbers dwindle as winter wears on. But there are always a few berries to catch our eye throughout the winter.

Winterberry is not difficult to grow. It’s happy in sun or part shade. It prefers acidic soil but isn’t picky about wet or dry conditions. In fact, it does very well in wet, poorly drained sites where few other shrubs prosper. It looks wonderful planted en masse, but it also works well in smaller groups. It is slow growing, reaching from 3 to 15 feet in height and width, depending on the variety.

A relative of holly, winterberry also requires a male and female plant to produce berries. The male and female should be planted within 40 feet of each other for adequate pollination. There should be one male plant for each three to five females.

Winterberry is available at local nurseries. Hadley Garden Center provides several cultivars that grow well in New England. These include ‘Red Sprite,” winner of the Cary Award, a program administered by Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston. ‘Winter Red’ is another popular choice, but my favorite is ‘Winter Gold,’ whose berries are a beautiful orangey pink color. ‘Southern Gentleman’ and ‘Jim Dandy’ are two popular male options.

Some winterberries bloom later than others, so make sure that the blooming times of your female and male plants coincide.

It’s too early to plant anything, of course. But it’s never too early to plan.

Organic pest management for vegetable gardens

An important if unglamorous aspect of growing your own vegetables is doing battle with pests who like to devour your crop before you do. Saturday at 1 p.m. at Hadley Garden Center, Dan Kaplan, farm manager at Brookfield Farm in Amherst, will give a presentation about controlling garden pests organically. He’s been at it for more than 20 years.

The presentation is part of Hadley Garden Center’s series of winter clinics which are free and open to the public. The space fills fast so come early. 285 Russell St. (Route 9) in Hadley; phone: 584-1423.

Tales from the Plant Explorer

The topic of plant exploration conjures up images of Victorian botanists, sedan chairs and the introduction of new curiosities to grace our gardens and landscapes.

While that may indeed depict a bygone era, the need to study plants in the wild and bring them back has never been greater. The Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston is hosting a talk by Michael Dosmann of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston about his various plant expeditions and what drives our modern plant collecting efforts. The talk will take place Saturday from 1 to 2 p.m. Michael Dosmann is the Curator of Living Collections at Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum, the oldest public arboretum in North America. As curator, his primary role is to steward, develop and enhance an amazing collection of some 15,000 trees, shrubs and vines collected from around the temperate world.

He is also a plant explorer who studies, documents and collects woody species from throughout the temperate world for integration into the Arboretum's Living Collection.

The talk is free with the price of admission. Open to the public but pre-registration is required.

Tower Hill Family Winter Walk

If your family isn’t interested in learning about plant collecting, take them on a winter tour of the lovely woods and gardens at Tower Hill. The guided walk will take place Saturday from 1 to 2 p.m. and be followed by hot chocolate in the conservatory. Free for members; Non-members: $10/family (up to 5 people) plus cost of admission. Pre-registration is required. Go to towerhillbg.org for more information and to register.

Hitchcock Center Summer Camps

The Hitchcock Center for the Environment will run a series of nature summer camps this year at its spectacular new facility in South Amherst. There are six sessions, starting July 3 and ending August 18; some are one-week and others two-week. The sessions are: Woodland Magic, Wild about Water, Leadership Training Camp, Feathers to Flight, Animals that Build and Rube Goldberg Machines. For ages 5 to 14. Membership in the Hitchcock Center offers many rewards, including early registration and preferential rates. Registration opens on line Feb. 2 for members and Feb. 16 for non-members. For more information and application, go to hitchcockcenter.org.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.

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