How to Grow Winterberry, a Native Plant, for Winter Interest

Updated on May 4, 2019
OldRoses profile image

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.


Looking for a way to jazz up your landscape during the winter? Look no further than the winterberry bush with its dazzling red berries.

What is Winterberry?

Winterberry is a shrub that is related to holly. It is native to the Northeastern US where it grows in marshy areas. If you have a wet area in your yard, this would be a great shrub to plant in that space. But it will also grow just fine in regular soil. Like its holly cousins, it is dioecious with male and female plants. Unlike its holly cousins, it is deciduous, losing its leaves in the fall. Once the leaves have fallen, the bright red berries are revealed. If they are not eaten by wildlife, they will stay on the branches for most of the winter providing color to your yard during a season with little color.

Winterberry is known by many different names such as Black Alder, Brook Alder, False Alder, Canada Holly and Fever Bush. It earned that last name thanks to the Native Americans who used the berries for medicinal purposes. They also used the bark to treat cuts and bruises. Before you try the berries, it should be noted that they are poisonous.

Flowers on a male winterberry
Flowers on a male winterberry | Source

How to Grow Winterberry

Winterberry is very easy to grow. It is hardy in zones 3 through 9. The shrubs range in height from 5 to 15 feet depending on the cultivar. They will grow in partial shade but produce more berries when grown in full sun. As noted above, they will grow in wet areas as well as normal soil. The shrubs are deciduous, shedding their leaves in the fall. The leaves are dark green turning to yellow in the fall.

To produce the colorful berries, you will need a male and a female plant. They should be labelled at the nursery. If not, you can tell them apart when they bloom in the summer. The male shrub will have small flowers in clusters while the female shrub’s flowers will be more conspicuous and fewer in number. You don’t need to purchase your plants in pairs. One male is enough to pollinate six to ten females. Just make sure that the male is within 40 feet of the females.

Flowers on a female winterberry
Flowers on a female winterberry | Source

How to Grow Winterberry From Seed

Winterberry bushes are as easy to propagate as they are to grow. They can be grown from seed. The seed needs moist, cold stratification. The easiest way to do that is to plant the seeds 1/8 inch deep then moisten the soil and cover the container with plastic. Place the covered seeded container in your refrigerator for four weeks. The cold in the refrigerator mimics the cold weather that the seeds would experience outdoors. They need this period of cold to break dormancy. The plastic cover keeps in the moisture, preventing the soil from drying out. This mimics the seeds natural environment which is marshy and wet. Plants grown from seed should begin to produce flowers after three years.

How to Grow Winterberry From Cuttings

You can also propagate winterberry from softwood cuttings. Softwood cuttings are cuttings made in the spring or early summer when the plants are actively growing. The cuttings should be made from the soft, growing tips of the branches before they have hardened into stiff, woody branches which happens later in the season. The advantage of using the soft growing tips is that they develop roots very easily. Plants grown from cuttings should produce flowers the following year.

Growing Winterberry in a Wildlife Friendly Yard

Winterberry shrubs are perfect for a wildlife friendly yard. The berries are an important food source during the winter when food is scarce. Although they are poisonous to humans, dogs, cats and horses, birds and other small mammals love them. Naturalists have counted 49 different species of birds that eat the berries. That includes not just the usual songbirds but also waterfowl and gamebirds. The term “small mammals” includes mice as well as larger animals like raccoons. But it’s not just the berries that will attract wildlife. Moose, white tail deer, cotton tail rabbits and snowshoe hares will eat the stems and bark if no other food source is available.

Growing native plants is always preferable to the exotics commonly found in most yards. Winterberry is a native plant that will add a splash of color to your winter landscape as well as provide a welcome buffet for wildlife.

Questions & Answers

  • Is there a Winterberry fragrance?

    No, the flowers have little to no fragrance.

  • Why are there are no berries on my Winterberry bushes?

    Oh dear, it sounds like you have all female or all male bushes. Winterberry bushes need both a male and a female bush to make berries. If the flowers are numerous and small, you have males. If they are large and fewer in number, you have females. Once you have determined which sex you have, you can go to your local nursery and by the opposite sex bush so that you will have berries next year.

© 2017 Caren White


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    • OldRoses profile imageAUTHOR

      Caren White 

      20 months ago

      You're welcome! Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 

      20 months ago from United States

      Lovely plant, lovely hub. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

    • OldRoses profile imageAUTHOR

      Caren White 

      20 months ago

      The paper towel method will work but the roots may be damaged when you transplant into soil. That's why it's best to start directly in soil. Every time you transplant a plant, you risk damaging the roots. That's what "transplant shock" is. Roots have been damaged or destroyed. Since the roots support the foliage, no new growth will appear until the damaged/destroyed roots have been replaced. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Kristin Marriott profile image

      Kristin Marriott 

      20 months ago from Morrisville

      This posting arrived in my mailbox at a serendipitous time, as I am looking to start a winterberry from seed. I put the seeds in a wet paper towel inside of a plastic bag into the refrigerator. Will this paper towel method also work, or do the seeds need to be in soil?

      Thanks for the informative post!

    • OldRoses profile imageAUTHOR

      Caren White 

      20 months ago

      It's probably a matter of local taste in landscaping whether or not winterberry are commonly seen. Thanks for reading and commenting and Happy Holidays to you too!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      20 months ago from Chicago Area

      I only see these occasionally in our area, even though they could grow in zone 5. I think it's interesting that they're poisonous to humans, dogs, etc., but not to birds. Ah, nature. Anyway, thanks for sharing another informative hub about some lovely plants! Happy Holidays!


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