by Marisa Baldine
February 01, 2021
In other seasons, this sturdy green shrub might go unnoticed, but during the winter months, the winterberry will stop you in your tracks. As its name suggests, the winterberry shines with a full display of bright red drupes, a berry-like fruit, throughout the winter. Unlike its relative, the American holly, the winterberry is deciduous. Deciduous trees lose their leaves during winter, making the winterberry drupes all the more prominent in forests, gardens, parks and wetlands.
For birds, the winterberry is more than just a beautiful plant. It provides space for nesting during the spring and a constant food supply during the coldest months of the year, when the ground is frozen and birds cannot forage for insects. Forty-eight species of Mid-Atlantic birds are known to feed on the winterberry. The fruit fuels the migration for birds like the gray catbird or wood thrush, while helping birdwatcher favorites, like the cedar waxwing and easter bluebird, survive winter in the Chesapeake.
In spring, the leaves return and small white flowers appear from April to June, offering a feast for native pollinators. The winterberry is a dioecious plant. The term translates to “two households,” so if you want to be rewarded with gorgeous red berries in the winter, you need at least two plants, one male and one female. Only the female plant will produce the bright red berries that the winterberry is known for. Male and female winterberry plants must be located within a 40-foot range of each other for proper pollination, and one male plant can pollinate up to five female plants. In the wild, winterberries normally grow in small colonies, which increases the likelihood that this cross-pollination will occur.
The winterberry is native to wetlands in eastern North America, but it is a versatile plant that can withstand a variety of conditions including clay and wet soil, and shade. The United States Department of Agriculture uses winterberry plants as one of the species used to identify wetlands. It is listed as a facultative wetland plant, which means it is found in wetlands the majority of the time, but may also be found in non-wetland areas. It is so adaptable that it will sometimes grow in roadside ditches, bringing a little more color to your winter drive. The winterberry’s adaptability is part of what has put this plant on the map for many rain gardens. As a rain garden plant, it serves multiple purposes by beautifying the landscape, filtering water, providing habitat and serving as a food source for wildlife.
People living in the Chesapeake used to use winterberry in herbal medicines, due to the plants ability to induce vomit and its laxative effects. However, the plant is now considered toxic by medical professionals. The safest bet is to enjoy its aesthetic value and leave the snacking to the wildlife.
On your next winter walk, keep your eyes open for this colorful shrub and the feasting birds that will surely be nearby. To learn more about the plants and animals of the Chesapeake Bay region, visit our Field Guide.