Our native holly is quite different than what most of us think of as “Christmas holly”. The deep green, holly sprigs with pointed leaves and red berries that we see in stores are imported from warmer climates to decorate our homes at Christmas. Winterberry holly is a much hardier deciduous shrub. Unless you are looking for it, winterberry holly is relatively non-descript until winter. Then they become one of the most recognizable shrubs along roadsides and field divisions.
Winterberry holly is an upright, multi-stemmed shrub that is generally under 2 m (6.56 ft) high. The leaves are simple, alternate and quite variable in shape. The toothed leaves are under 9 cm (3.5 in.) long, egg-shaped or lance-shaped, and wider towards the tip. After the leaves fall, the show belongs to the bright red almost stemless berries that look like they have been glued on directly to the stems. The berries are one of the most attractive sights of a Prince Edward Island winter, sharply contrasting with the deep green of the spruce trees and the white snow. The berries persist through much of the winter, depending on what other types of food are available for birds. Some of the plants will be barren of berries. These are the male plants that pollinate the female hollies which produce the berries.
Often found in large groupings, native hollies thrive in open, wet areas. They are very tolerant of standing water and salt, and are a common plant along the north shore roadways, pondsides, damp thickets and wet woodlands.
Holly propagation from cuttings is difficult, since they rarely make the vigorous growth needed for good cutting material. Transplanting is also difficult, since they have spreading roots tend to be tall and leggy. The best way to grow new hollies is from seed. The berries can be collected any time during the winter and the seeds cleaned out with a fine strainer and water. These cleaned seeds should be stored in a dry, cool place and planted in early spring spring in a garden bed. They will normally not germinate until the next spring.
The fruit of winterberry holly is an important food source for winter birds such as robins, waxwings, ruffed grouse, blue jays and northern flickers. It is not uncommon to see a red squirrel perched in a holly bush eating fruit. The berries are also eaten by raccoons and other small mammals.
Our native holly is quite common in suitable habitats. It is an excellent plant to add in large plantings to increase biodiversity, attract winter birds, or as a landscape feature. Since there are both male and female plants, the seedlings you plant will probably include some of each sex. To get the best results, plant in groupings of five or more to give you better odds. One male plant will fertilize many nearby females. In recent years there has been an increase in the amount of winterberry holly as a Christmas decoration. While holly is a beautiful addition to wreaths and other decorations, over-harvesting may cause problems in the future. Almost no information is available on how much cutting these plants can tolerate, so try to harvest lightly and cut from different areas each year.
Winterberry is a small shrub, found throughout the province. It grows from 5 to 10 feet high and rarely exceed one inch in diameter. It is mostly found in low grounds, moist woods and swamps. It is a handsome shrub, belonging to the Holly Family, with bright green glossy leaves. Clusters of small greenish-white flowers appearing in May and June turn into bright scarlet berries in the autumn. These berries cling to the branches in the axil of the leaf all winter. The wood is of no commercial importance.