Digginí In: Nothing says winter like the beauty of berry-producing plants

December 28, 2015

The biggest and brightest berries on trees and shrubs, especially hollies, typically appear just in time to welcome the holiday season, making your landscape look merry.

At the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., berry-laden holly is used in the collegeís annual yule log ceremony where ceremonial sprigs are tossed into a Yule log fire in the Great Hall fireplace for good luck.

Also, boughs of holly from campus plants are woven into holiday decorations that the garden and grounds teams create for the Presidentís House.

"William and Mary host not only native American species of holly, but also Asian, and one or two European species as well," says John McFarlane, associate director of gardens and grounds, facilities management.

"We have both evergreen and deciduous types. Most people donít realize that the deciduous types are hollies. Berries you see on campus can be red, black or yellow depending upon the species of holly."

In addition to the better-known American, Foster, Sparkleberry and yaupon hollies, the campus is home to yellow-berried American holly, black-berried inkberry holly, no-berry Chinese Carissa and red-berried Wirt Winn holly which have large glossy green leaves that resemble Southern magnolia. The campus is open to the public so a casual walk around the grounds will take you by many of the hollies.

Berry-best picks

Here, garden centers and landscape designers recommend their favorite berry-producing plants for use in your own yard.

"There are so many varieties of hollies to keep track of Ö big and small," says Peggy Krapf of Heartís Ease Landscape & Garden Design, also in Williamsburg (

"If gardeners are looking for red berries they should read the tags because not all hollies berry, and some have black or dark blue fruit ó not red. Pyramidal red hollies are some of my favorites for size and neatness in a home garden ó but not all of them berry. Some hollies berry without a male partner but many donít. However, hollies of all types and varieties, including our native Ilex opaca, are so common that pollination is rarely an issue.

"However, people do need to be aware of pruning practices. If you continue to prune your holly after flower set and pollination, you are cutting future berries. Wet spring weather can also affect pollination and berry set. And, like most flowering or berrying plants, the more sun they get the showier they usually are."

American holly

American holly, or Ilex opaca, is a dioecious plant, meaning it needs male and female plants to make berries, according to Helen Hamilton, past president of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society (

All it takes is one male plant for good fruit production on three to five female plants. April-June, small greenish-white flowers appear on the male and female trees, attracting insects that visit the flowers for nectar, and carry pollen to the female flowers.

Bright red fruits ó botanically called drupes ó ripen on the pollinated female trees September ó October, according to Hamilton. The fruits are prized winter food for overwintering songbirds.

American holly is the only native U.S. holly with leathery, spiny green leaves and red berries, she adds. The ornamental tree grows best in full sun and in moist, slightly acidic, well-drained soils. Garden centers carry many cultivars of the male and female trees.

Yaupon holly

Yaupon holly, or Ilex vomitoria, is a versatile berry-producing native plant, according to Darl Fletcher, assistant horticulture curator at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News (

This evergreen understory tree has small, dark green oblong shaped leaves, sports a profusion of bright red glossy berries, and is happy in a wide variety of growing conditions, he adds. The holly grows in a wide range of soil types, is drought tolerant, and tolerates poor drainage. While berry production is best in full sun, yaupon holly does well in shade, too.

In the landscape, yaupon holly can be used in numerous applications depending on the variety. For instance, dwarf cultivars can be used in foundation plantings. Columnar varieties work well to incorporate height in foundation plantings when placed at house corners or entranceways. A weeping variety or straight species looks nice as specimen plantings and adds height to beds. As well, straight species make excellent screens because they are dense, evergreen and like pruning.

"Wildlife also benefits from yaupon hollies in your landscape," says Fletcher.

"This evergreen species provides year round cover for birds as well as nesting sites. Yaupon berries provide winter food for birds and small mammals. Its flowers are a nectar source for bees and other pollinators, and itís the larval host of Henrys Elfin butterfly."



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