(photo: Fiep de Bie)

Winterberry holly

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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When it comes to plants, I’m drawn to ones that provide multiple returns. The ostrich fern is also the source of delicious fiddleheads. The sugar maple offers vivid fall colours, a source of sap for maple syrup, shade, and —eventually, possibly—valuable firewood or lumber.

On Prince Edward Island, we have many plants that are beautiful in their own right, especially with their fruit decorating the winter landscape. But for me, these plants are equally important for the birds and other wildlife that they attract.

When taking part in Montague Christmas Bird Counts, our gaggle of birders would regularly sight large flocks of American robins, bohemian and cedar waxwings, pine grosbeaks, and several varieties of woodpeckers in one particular area north of Georgetown. It is not a particularly attractive area, with no large trees for the most part. It took me a few years to put it all together, but the reason is quite simple—most years the area produces a ton of fruit. I took a picture of the area and there was a red sheen across the landscape. The redness came from the fruit of hawthorn, American mountain ash, wild rose, highbush cranberry, and especially winterberry holly.

Our native holly is not evergreen, like the European varieties that gave rise to “The Holly and the Ivy” and are still such a reminder of the Christmas season. Winterberry holly is deciduous, losing its leaves after the first frosts. It is a relatively short shrub, mostly growing to 5 or 6 feet but occasionally getting up to 12 feet if shaded.

Native hollies thrive in open, wet areas and are often found in large groups.  They are tolerant of standing water and salt, and are a common plant along the north shore roadways, pondsides, and damp thickets.

The leaves are oval, toothed, and variable in shape. The flowers and subsequent fruit are pale and small, and produced close to the branch. I generally don’t think much of the plant until leaf fall. With so many other striking native plants that have interesting flowers or leaves or bark, the holly mostly goes unnoticed.  But once the leaves drop, there is nothing drab about this shrub at all.

It is the female plants that develop the brilliant orange berries we so often see in holiday wreaths and flower arrangements. They need to be pollinated by a male plant to produce a good crop of berries, so we generally just plant a bunch of them and that seems to work out just fine.

This year, the holly berries are especially large and bright. If you drive almost anywhere in the province where there are wetlands or even ditches, you’ll see one of these gorgeous native shrubs. I’m always on the lookout for healthy and attractive species for seed collecting, and just when I think I’ve found the most beautiful winterberry holly with the heaviest fruit crop, I bump into another one that is even more attractive.

These plants are also incredibly appealing to wildlife, though the berries are poisonous to humans. Their fruit is highly prized by our winter birds and mammals.  Besides the species listed above, the berries are also eaten by ruffed grouse, sparrows and even ducks. But that’s not all. On several outings I have been pleasantly surprised when I put my binoculars on movement in a native holly and see a red squirrel feeding on the berries.

Winterberry holly is another one of our native plants that I feel blessed to have gotten to know and appreciate.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.