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The Winterberry Affair

My daughter Wendy, the computer graphic designer, was building a website for a little nursery in upstate New York. My dad started the place, with Christmas trees; my sister’s husband Andrew has now added unusual woody trees and shrubs.

In addition, my husband Ward was creating the Web interface. Watching this family project come together was fun. Until I saw the mockup for the winter version of the homepage.

I was dismayed to recognize Oriental bittersweet in a prominent place. I sure hoped Andrew didn’t sell this dangerous invasive! I checked: no. But even having it there, made it look like he approved of using it for landscaping.

However, it turned out Wendy had chosen it. “Mo-om,” she explained with exasperation , “It’s hard finding free photos of something that will lend color to the winter page; it’s all I could come up with.”

So I went looking for an alternative. In Timothy Abbey’s great little booklet Native Alternatives for Invasive Ornamental Plant Species, I read about Winterberry (Ilex verticillata). This deciduous holly keeps its bright red berries long after the leaves fall, making a striking winter display.

Lots of winterberry pictures on the Web. I admired photos of the wreaths made from it: straight, twiggy lines radiating from the center, red berries all over. But I needed a photo not only of the bush in a natural setting, but owned by someone I might be able to beg for the image.

It wasn’t hard to choose. Brookside Gardens, in Wheaton, Maryland had a great shot on their site: the berries peeking out of a heavy frosting of snow. Since Brookside is part of the Maryland-National Capital Park complex, I was able to appeal to their conservation ethics, and got permission to use the photo. When I mentioned the change to Andrew, he agreed with me about the bittersweet: “nasty plant,” he remarked.

The site of the Holmes Hollow Nursery is now on the Web (<http://www.holmeshollow.com/>). But I have a new problem: I fell in love with the plant.

It prefers wetlands. Some growers say it will grow in drier, ordinary garden soil, where it spreads less. But that “ordinary garden soil” I am sure does not include my sandy, super-well-drained soil, which can get quite droughty. So I will resist planting it here.

Still I keep thinking about it. Looking for it. Wondering whom I could interest in planting it....


Photo of Winterberry in snow, courtesy of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, from the Web site of Brookside Gardens (Wheaton, Maryland).


Text © Copyright 2004 Catherine Holmes Clark


Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 17 December 2004

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More comments from Andrew Fowler at Holmes Hollow Nursery:

"I had planted several winterberries around the place and deer have eaten them all. It's also quite difficult to find a suitable male, since the different varieties and cultivars have different flowering times and one must find a compatible male in order to get the fruit. But it's certainly a plant worth adding to anyones garden.

Oriental bittersweet was one of those plants promoted by the Soil Conservation service as a good wildlife plant, which is why it is so invasive; birds love it and spread the seed everywhere. There is an American bittersweet, which is less invasive, because it has terminal flowers, as opposed the axillary flowers of the Oriental, resulting in less vigorous growth and less fruit. But I have never found true American bittersweet in a nursery, although labelled as such. Caveat emptor!!"

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