Vibrant Winter Hollies

Native hollies possumhaw and winterberry produce riveting berry displays.
Steve Bender

Austin garden designer Pam Penick couldn’t stand it any longer. All over town, the scarlet flames of possumhaw were turning her green with envy.

“I said, ‘I’ve got to get a possumhaw for my garden. I can’t go on being jealous of my neighbors,’ ” she recalls.

What exactly is a possumhaw (Ilex decidua)? It’s one of two native, deciduous hollies widely available for planting in home gardens. The other is winterberry (I. verticillata). The fact that both drop their leaves for winter makes their berry displays all the more riveting. Red is the usual berry color, but you can also choose orange, golden, and yellow.

Now that we know what we’re talking about, let’s answer some of those thought-provoking questions inquiring minds undoubtedly have.

Q: How can you tell the difference between possumhaw and winterberry? They look the same to me.
A: Silvery bark and leaves with rounded tips say possumhaw. Dark brown-to-black bark and leaves with pointed tips say winterberry. Also, possumhaw grows twice as big—up to 25 feet tall and 15 feet wide.

Q: Where should I plant them?
A: Pam says deciduous hollies really stand out against an evergreen background such as live oaks and cedars. Rich green winter lawns of bluegrass and fescue show off the berries too. Use these natives in masses and shrub borders. And plant them anywhere you can see the berries reflected in still water.

Q: What kind of soil do they like?
A: Both thrive in acid, well-drained soil that contains lots of organic matter. However, possumhaw also grows in alkaline, limy, rocky soil. Winterberry won’t. But winterberry will grow in wet, boggy soil. Possumhaw won’t.

Q: Do they prefer sun or shade?
A: The more sun these hollies get, the more berries you’ll get.

Q: Do these hollies need pollinators?
A: Yes, because only female plants produce berries. So for winterberry, plant a male called ‘Southern Gentleman’ somewhere in the vicinity. For possumhaw, try ‘Red Escort’ male possumhaw, a male American holly (I. opaca), or a male yaupon (I. vomitoria). One male will service six females. Trust me—it’s the best job in the whole world.

Q: Are there special selections of each you recommend?
A: You can’t go wrong with ‘Winter Red’ or ‘Winter Gold’ winterberry or the dwarf ‘Red Sprite.’ And try ‘Warren’s Red,’ ‘Sundance,’ and ‘Finch’s Golden’ possumhaw.

Q: Are cut branches good for winter arrangements?
A: Yep! Stick berry-laden branches in florist foam inside a tall vase.

Q: Where can I buy these hollies?
A: Many garden centers have them. Online, check out fairweathergardens.com, forestfarm.com, and woodlanders.net. Order cut branches from a florist.