As you wander through campus in late fall, you may notice
leafless shrubs with extremely showy bright red berries. These are the
aptly-named winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata). This upright,
multi-stemmed shrub can reach about 10 feet tall, and has thin, smooth, grey
bark. The glossy-red berries are round drupes about one-quarter inch in diameter
that persist through the winter—actually starting out green and maturing to red
in the fall.
The two- to three-inch long dark green leaves are alternate,
simple, and lance shaped, with a sharply-toothed margin. The leaves turn
yellow-green in fall, then blacken with frost and drop to reveal the berries.
The plants are dioecious, meaning they are either male or female. Only female
plants form berries, and they require a close-by male plant of the same species
to set fruit. The small white flowers are not showy.
Winterberry hollies are native to our area, and to the whole
eastern and central U.S. They like moist, acidic soils, including poorly-drained
soils, and are often found at the edges of woods or in swamps, where they tend
to sucker and form large clumps. They prefer full sun, and produce more berries
with more sun, but will also tolerate shade. The berries are eaten by birds, and
the plant is a larval host to the Henry's Elfin butterfly (Callophrys henrici).