At a casual glance, it seems that there is not much color in the Somers winter landscape. Once the last brilliant autumn leaf has fallen, nature’s palette consists primarily of subtle variations of gray, brown, and black. But a keen eye will spot flashes of red on tall shrubs in the understory along our wooded byways. This is not the all too familiar red-orange of the invasive Asian bittersweet choking the trees along the Saw Mill River Parkway, in Angle Fly Preserve and elsewhere. Rather, this welcome hue is the rosier-toned fruits of our aptly-named native Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a deciduous member of the holly family.
When it has ample moisture, Winterberry tends to spread out into small stands, making it a useful marker for wet, acidic habitat. Although it is a holly, its leaf is not at all similar to the iconic spiny-leafed holly which graces holiday decorations. Instead, it sports simple almond-shaped leaves with gently serrated edges, medium green turning yellow in the fall. Winterberry has small white flowers that are easy to miss, with the male and female flowers growing on separate plants. It is the female shrub that develops the bright berries.
Its cheerful winter color and easy cultivation make Winterberry a popular addition to public and private gardens. It is a good choice for gardeners who prefer native plantings and would like to provide food and habitat for native birds and small mammals.