Winterberry plants add color to winter

Winterberry plants add color to winter
Herb Broda

One way to define “stunning” is to find winterberry plants in a snow-covered landscape. The dense clusters of bright red berries defy the monochromatic look of a winter background.


One way to define “stunning” is to find winterberry plants in a snow-covered landscape. The dense clusters of bright red berries defy the monochromatic look of a winter background.

Winterberry is a holly shrub native to the Eastern United States. It is medium-sized, usually 6-10 feet tall. The plant grows wild in acidic soils in forested wetlands or along ponds, lakes and marshes.

Although the plant is a holly, the leaves of the common winterberry do not have the classic sharp teeth usually found on hollies. While many holly shrubs are evergreen, winterberry loses its leaves in late fall.

Winterberry has become popular as a landscape plant and is readily available. At Secrest Arboretum on the OSU-OARDC campus in Wooster, winterberry is found along the main path in the gardens and also next to the Discovery Pavilion.

The dense clusters of bright red berries are impressive. The berries can remain on the plant throughout the winter and are an important food source for birds. Initially, the berries are hard, so birds wait a bit and feed on the berries after they have had a chance to soften. Winterberry is an important food source for some wildlife, but it can be toxic to pets and people.

Winter survival

As we move into the coldest weeks of the year, a big question emerges: How do animals make it through the chilliest days of winter?

Some animals, like many humans, migrate to warmer areas when it gets colder. Determining when to leave involves many factors such as length of day, changing food supplies and concerns about how much energy needs to be expended to stay warm.

Migration sounds like a great idea, but like anything, it has its downsides. Travel over long distances is stressful and dangerous. The need to locate new food sources and shelter in unfamiliar areas also requires a large expenditure of energy, as well as competition with native species in the area.

Hibernation is another effective strategy to survive the cold. The National Park Service defines hibernation as “a physical state where an animal’s body function slows down in order to conserve energy in a season of no food and water and cold temperatures.” Hibernation is really a continuum that goes from “true hibernators” (marmots), to “deep sleep” (bears), to “occasional sleep” (raccoons).

Many animals that don’t migrate or hibernate develop resistance or tolerance of the cold. Birds will fluff out their feathers on cold days. Mice and voles have tiny ears, small feet that are close to the ground and thick coats of fur to resist bitterly cold weather.

Spring peepers and similar frog relatives are able to generate an internal antifreeze in their bodies that keeps organs from freezing. Their hearts nearly stop beating, and the lungs cease breathing. Amazingly, as warmer temperatures arrive, all of the internal organs begin to function once again.

Beavers and squirrels store lots of food in advance of winter and munch their way through the season. Deer and rabbits are busy all winter seeking food sources often hidden by the snow.

Because there are so many different types of insects, there also are many different ways of coping with winter. Some survive as adults by staying inside rotten logs, under dead leaves or just burrow in the soil. Still others live in galls on the stems of plants, and some, like monarch butterflies, migrate to warmer climates.

But the reality is most insects don’t make it through winter. Before they die, however, they create a spring legacy by laying eggs in the ground or on the bark of trees.

Step outside

Don’t let the cold keep you indoors. Winter is a great time to be outside and provides unique perspectives and textures that can only be found at this time of year.

Where we live, blustery, bone-chilling winter weather is thankfully not the norm. With warm clothing and winter footwear, most Ohio winter days are perfectly fine for a brisk walk.

By the way, if you are outside at dusk, stop and listen for hooting owls. This is the best time of year to hear great horned owls, barred owls and eastern screech owls as they set up territories and find mates.

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