Winterberry, Our Local Wild Holiday Holly
Iconic of the holiday season is the image of a branch full of bright red holly berries surrounded in spiky green leaves set against a stark-white snowy background. Add in a splash of seasonal fauna—like a red cardinal, caribou or deer topped with snow-laden antlers, or a fluffy red squirrel—and your wintry picture is complete.
Holly plants belong to genus Ilex, meaning “holm-oak” or “evergreen oak” in Latin. Hollies commonly seen in traditional imagery often sport a slight leaf curl or variegated leaves (that is, leaves of two or more colors). Those are holly native to Europe, from whence many of our Christmas traditions and images come from. Aside from those two features (leaf curl and variegation), European holly is difficult to distinguish from the native American Holly, which grows along the eastern coast of the U.S. and down across into easterly Texas. American holly grows singly colored leaves as well as more robust teeth (spikes) along the leaf edges.
While Minnesota isn’t growing territory for the American Holly, our state does have its own variety of Ilex, the Winterberry, or Ilex verticillata. This plant goes by a handful of other names, including black alder, Canada holly, coralberry, and Michigan holly.[i] While American holly displays a deeply toothed leaf edge that can actually inflict skin damage, winterberry is more timid (much like our “Minnesota nice” human population). Compared to its southerly cousin, Winterberry’s leaf edges are typically only delicately serrated, although scientists have determined that, even on the same plant, holly leaves can vary from perfectly smooth to aggressively spiky, and that spike lengths are largely dependent on how many animals are trying to eat the plant![ii]
Speaking of eating, winterberries are an excellent food source for many small animals and more than 48 bird species[iii] but should not be considered human food. Decorating with real winterberry branches can be fun and festive but should be done using caution, as there have been cases where children and pets have mistaken the bright fruits for a cranberry or other tasty snack. Winterberries have a low toxicity so are unlikely to cause death if only one or two are eaten, but ingestion could result in unpleasant side effects like stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, drowsiness, and even depression.
I haven’t been lucky enough to spot a winterberry bush around our property (we’re probably too hilly and not quite marshy enough for winterberry’s taste), but I trust the cardinals, robins, and other winter songbirds I see flocking to our bird feeder know where to go to get their fill of them. Participants in a forum on MinnesotaWildflowers.info reported seeing bright red winterberries as early as late September of this year in the areas of Finlayson and Lake Shore, MN, cities about 2 hours north of St. Paul.
As for me, I feel no need to trek in search of winterberry right now. I’m perfectly happy looking out my window at our little crab apple tree which dots the landscape with its sprinkle of dark red berries and humming the olde tyme tune “The Holly and the Ivy” (which has an interesting history) while I go about my holiday decorating… with artificial holly berries, that is.
Author’s Note & Word Fun: The US Postal Service celebrates the winterberry in one of its latest stamp collections, dutifully titled “Winter Berries”; the other three colorful berries featured on the stamp collection are the juniper berry, beauty berry, and soapberry. If you’re a person who loves stamps, you’re a philatelist, and you may already know that a keepsake set of Winter Berries (4 stamps) will cost you a pretty $17.95.
[ii] Learn more about holly leaf growth and adaptation at National Geographic’s “Hollies Get Prickly for a Reason”, published 21Dec2012.