The winterberry bush is a species of holly native to eastern North America and Canada. It’s abundant in the wild and is most frequently found in swampy woodland and wetland areas, though winterberry bushes may also be purchased at garden centers and nurseries.
This medium-sized flowering bush blends seamlessly into woodland areas in the spring and summer, but by the time the leaves have fallen from the surrounding trees in the late fall and early winter — when the winterberry bush leaves are brown and scarce — what remains on the shrub is the bright red, beautiful berries. The berries are pea sized and form in small clusters, punctuating the barren woods with a burst of vibrant color.
Typically a bold red, the berries sometimes take on a reddish orange hue and are highly sought after by landscape decorators and homeowners in late November and December. They are incorporated in traditional outside holiday decorating in wreaths, urns, and swags. The abundant berries are harvested from the wild in New England for retail sale during the holiday season, although winterberries are stunning in their own right throughout the winter in contrast with evergreen trees and snow.
Not only are these berry bushes beautiful, they also attract and provide a significant food source to native birds and wildlife. Because of their high visibility in the winter landscape, they are very easy for birds to spot.
Often you will find several species of birds congregating on a winterberry bush for a feast. In fact, over forty known species of North American birds rely on these berries as a part of their food source. Mammals such as moose, deer and rabbits eat the stems and leaves in the winter as well. It is important to note that although this shrub species is an abundant source of food for wildlife, the berries are poisonous and extremely toxic to humans if consumed. It is best to keep the berries away from small children.
Because of their beauty and versatility, many gardeners are now choosing to incorporate winterberry bushes into their landscape design, particularly those who want to encourage wildlife into their backyards or those who are trying to fill in barren landscape with native plant and tree species to provide a natural border or buffer around the landscape.
Tips for Gathering Wild Winterberry Branches
You will need sharp pruners or floral scissors. Take a large cardboard box with you to carry and transport the branches. Cut stems individually at an angle, leaving at least five inches of branch with berry nodules intact. Be sure to thoughtfully gather stems from all over the bush. Do not clear cut or strip a bush of the berry branches. Always ask permission before gathering berries that are not on your own property.
This post was first published in 2012 and has been updated.