Seasonal Plant - Ilex verticillata (Winterberry)

'Red Sprite'

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, winterberry (Ilex verticillata) that is. While this member of the genus Ilex is not what Thomas Oliphant meant when he transliterated the lyrics of this ancient Welsh carol into English, it is what we think of at Secrest. Ilex verticillata is perhaps the most visually stunning member of the genus Ilex.


Ilex, which comes from the Celtic word ‘Ac’ meaning point, refers to the spines commonly found on the leaves of this species. However, Ilex verticillata lacks such spines. Ilex verticllata is the most widely distributed native species of holly, being found in Canada south to Florida, and west to Missouri. It can even be found growing in Ohio. It prefers to grow in swampy  areas but can tolerate drier sites. The foliage is medium green in summer (flowers are inconspicuous) and turns purple to yellow in the fall. The plant begins to shine in September when the berries turn bright red. The contrasting display of red fruit and green foliage is striking. As the season progresses the foliage falls off leaving only berries on the stems. These stems  stand out in the winter landscape, especially against a contrasting backdrop (think grasses or evergreens) and provide food for birds. Large (8-10’) and small (2-3’) selections are  available in the trade, and offer red, orange, yellow, or white fruit.

'Winter Red'The selection ‘Winter Red’ is a Secrest Select plant and has performed well in Secrest for 30 years. The plant produces an abundance of shiny red berries. The branches are attractive  alone, covered in frost, or covered in snow. It is used for holiday decorations, holding up quite well in arrangements, and dries well if left undisturbed in a vase. All members of the genus Ilex are dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Thus, to have fruit you must have a male pollinator. Not only that, but you must also purchase the correct male pollinator to go with the desired female due to variations in flowering times. The male of one species will not pollinate the female of another. For example, if you plant an Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’ female, an Ilex x meserveae ‘China Boy’ male will not pollinate the female of the other species. 

You can find winterberry throughout the gardens at Secrest Arboretum and the grounds surrounding the Discovery Pavilion.


--Paul Snyder, Operations Manager snyder1062@osu.edu