Wonderful Winterberry

It was a cold, drizzly day at nearby Aldridge Gardens. A bright red color near the lake caught my attention; and when I investigated, I found a colony of Ilex verticillata, or American winterberry, glowing in the damp, gray air.

Winterberries are deciduous hollies native to eastern North America from Texas to Florida, north to southeastern Canada. They are an important food source for numerous birds, including American robins, bluebirds, bluejays, cedar waxwings and many others. A flock of birds may descend on a winterberry bush and and strip it of its berries in one boisterous banquet! Many mammals, such as raccoons, squirrels and rabbits, also enjoy the fruit.

These are tough, easy-to-grow shrubs. Growing in full sun to partial shade, they love wet, acidic soil but will adapt to other conditions. They can do well in average garden soil. In wet soil they may sucker and produce colonies.

Like many other hollies, winterberries are dioecious, needing separate male and female plants to produce berries. They may blend into their surroundings much of the year; but their bright berries persist on bare branches long after their leaves have fallen, and they can be spectacular in the winter landscape, at least until the birds get them.

Here are another couple of views of the winterberries at Aldridge Gardens:

There are many cultivars of Ilex verticillata available. They can vary in form and size from about three feet up to sixteen feet at maturity. Berry color can also vary. 'Winter Gold' is a female cultivar that reaches about five to eight feet.

Winterberries can be a highlight of the winter garden; and if (when) your feathered friends discover them, watching all those happy birds can be a thrill, as well.


Saving the American Chestnut Tree

Towering over 100 feet tall and with a diameter of up to 10 feet, the American chestnut tree, Castanea dentata, was known as the "Redwood of the East."At one time the American chestnut accounted for up to 25% of the forest canopy in the Eastern United States. It was a significant contributor to the rural economy, and it was an important part of the forest ecosystem. But who has seen one of these trees in the past quarter century? A deadly fungus, which probably hitchhiked to America on imported Asian chestnut trees, was first noted in a tree in 1904 at the Bronx zoo. Despite all efforts to control it, the disease quickly spread to defenseless American chestnut trees, and within 80 years only echoes of the great chestnut forests remained.

There are four main species of chestnut trees: American, European, Japanese and Chinese. Only the American has succumbed to the chestnut blight. American chestnuts are said to be superior, with a sweeter taste, than Asian chestnuts, and American chestnut wood is highly resistant to rot and was a prized building material. 

Chestnuts grow inside easily opened spiny shells.

Asian chestnut trees, which are unaffected by the disease, are sometimes planted as a replacement, but these are much smaller trees, about the size of a mature apple tree. One can no longer buy chestnut lumber, and chestnuts for sale are either imported or come from non-native trees.

Despite its demise as a food and lumber source, the American chestnut is not extinct. Sprouts still emerge from old stumps, though they usually succumb to the disease before they mature. The American Chestnut Foundation is making efforts to restore the American chestnut by breeding a genetically diverse, blight-resistant American chestnut tree. One group of blight-resistant trees is 15/16 American Chestnut and 1/16 Chinese Chestnut. These trees are now being planted in test sites to determine their suitability.

Three of these American chestnut trees were recently planted in Joe Tucker Park in Helena, Alabama, by the owner of Myers Plants and Pottery, plantsman Stewart Myers; horticulturist Fred Kapp; and members of the Helena Beautification Board.

Fred Kapp, on the left, and Stewart Myers stand by a newly-planted American chestnut tree.More American chestnut trees are being planted by this group in selected sites in our area. The hope is that these trees will grow and produce nuts, which people may pick up and plant, therefore helping to reintroduce this important tree to the landscape of the Eastern United States.