Fall is here. Maybe not according to the calendar, but the air conditioner is off and the holly berries are red. As far as I’m concerned, it’s fall.
The berries in question belong to Sparkleberry, my female winterberry holly. Sparkleberry and her male pollinator Apollo were among the wet-tolerant natives that I chose for my problematic back yard, which floods whenever there is a heavy rain. Since joining my garden in 2007, this unlucky pair has been subjected to the most outrageous abuse that either I or nature could heap upon them - flooding, drought, hungry deer, two relocations, and some accidental swipes with a lawn mower. Yet here they are, five years later, sailing along as if nothing had happened.
Take a good look. Those berries will be gone soon.
I was attracted to winterberry hollies in part because of their indifference to standing water. It is not just any plant that can sit for days in a pool of water and not complain. But what I was really after was winter interest. The truth is, winterberry hollies are nondescript for much of the year. Their ornamental value lies in their berries, which ripen in early fall. Disdained by birds, the berries are said to last well into the winter, injecting a jolt of color into an otherwise drab landscape. That, and not their flood tolerance, was the real reason I chose them.
Winterberry plants are either male or female; only the females produce the berries. Although the berryless males are downright boring, you will need one to fertilize your females if you expect them to produce berries. And it can’t be just any male - it must be one whose bloom time matches that of the females. In the nursery biz, Apollo is touted as the best partner for Sparkleberry. Southern Gentleman is the preferred mate for Winter Red.
Winterberries, however, are not monogamous. Despite his name, Southern Gentleman is nothing of the kind, and is perfectly happy to consort with Sparkleberry. The more aptly named Apollo gets along well with a variety of females, including Winter Red, which I added to the garden in 2009. You can mix and match, as long as the bloom time overlaps.
As I enter the fifth year of my winterberry holly experience, my expectations for “winter interest” have been adjusted downward. Forget January - the berries on Sparkleberry have yet to last through Thanksgiving. It seems that my backyard birds love them, and devour them just as soon as they finish denuding my callicarpa. Still, Sparkleberry fares better than Winter Red, which sets berries every spring, only to have them disappear over the summer, before they have even had a chance to turn red.
Despite their less-than-stellar display, I don’t regret choosing them. The birds enjoy them. Sparkleberry looks pretty for about six weeks. And have I mentioned that they are flood tolerant?
The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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