We squirrels leaped across a real treat during a romp in the local woods – a stand of native shrubs bursting with berries!
We suspect this big stand was planted by you humans, but who cares! These Winterberry Hollies, Ilex verticillata, are native from southeastern Canada down into Alabama, and we wildlife need all the food sources we can find now that the cold has descended on us.
Hickory flicked his tail to balance and reach for another berry. “These are tastier than the berries we get in some backyards.”
“Most native berries are,” Miz Flora said. “They have more fat in them than the designer berries that humans find so pretty. Those might have 1% fat, but our native berries contain 6 to 50% fat. That makes them tastier for us, and healthier for migrating birds.”
“I want to get to them before the birds!” Hickory got that determined look in his eye.
“Ah, ah,” I told him. “We have to share. Birds flying across the ocean need that fat more than a suburban squirrel. If we fill up on junk food, we can sleep it off in our dreys–maybe a little colder. But a migrating bird has nowhere to land if his energy gives out over the ocean.”
Hickory dipped his head.
Ol’ Wally took pity on him. “Give an old squirrel a break, young’un, and drop me a few to try.”
Hickory scurried about to pop off a pawful of berries over Ol’ Wally’s head. “Did you also notice these berries are easy to get to?”
Yep, unlike most hollies, the Winterberry has a deciduous leaf that is not prickly.
But like most hollies, these shrubs have both male and female plants, and they must grow close to each other to cross-pollinate to develop the berries on the female plant. That’s probably why the humans who planted these put them together in such a large stand. Winterberries shrubs will get 6 to 10 feet high, and they tolerate both wet and dry soil. That makes them perfect for those areas where you humans have runoff problems. A nice winterberry stand in a drainage swale will also soak up that extra water, plus they grow in all light situations, from sun to shade.
We enjoyed our treat and went on our way. As we left, I looked back at the pretty berries that stood our so nicely in the gray woods. Beside me, Hickory asked, “Will the humans also be gathering these to eat?”
“No!” Miz Flora said. “All Ilex, or holly, species are toxic to them. Many of the foods we squirrels eat.”
But I had another thought: I hope the humans don’t gather these for their holiday decorations!