You used to see branches of Bittersweet, or Celastrus orbiculatus, for sale all over the place at this time of year. Thankfully, this has mostly stopped, because this invasive thug has been squeezing the life out of our more sedate plants, trees, and shrubs, and the use of its berries in holiday arrangements has made the problem infinitely worse. I know of a local museum that has suddenly had Bittersweet mysteriously growing in a place where it never had grown before – mysterious until someone was discovered throwing out holiday decorations containing Bittersweet berries in that general vicinity.
The berries are lovely, there is no doubt about it. But if you have ever seen a Pine tree with a rope of Bittersweet cutting deep into its bark, or a shrub bed completely suffocated by its voluminous growth, then I think you will agree that it’s time to think of an alternative.
Luckily, We have choices. One such choice is Ilex verticillata, or Winterberry Holly. A deciduous holly, it is smothered in red berries all winter long. You need a male and a female in order to get berries, but one male will pollinate females that are quite a distance away so if your neighbor has one growing in their garden, for example, you don’t need one yourself. The males have wonderful names like “Jim Dandy”, or “Southern Gentleman” and grow 6-8 feet tall, where the females can range from the 8-10 foot tall “Sparkleberry” to 3-4 foot tall “Red Sprite”.
If you’re still missing the orange color of Bittersweet, there’s an orange-berried Winterberry called “Winter Gold” that will scratch that itch for you.
Winterberries are a bit boring in the summer, with small, unremarkable flowers, but that’s ok. They are a nice backdrop for other plants, and they more than make up for it in the winter. And they don’t take over and strangle the good guys.