#bioPGH Blog: Winter’s Winterberries
Jan 26

#bioPGH Blog: Winter’s Winterberries

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Science Education and Research Outreach Coordinator


Biophilia NetworkA resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer. 

Subscribe to Posts Via Email

Peeping out from under our umbrellas, many of us have noticed a drizzly, gray January so far. Though snow is absent, plants are still dormant, trees stand bare and seemingly leafless, and little flecks of blue sky have been few and far between. Yet there is a particularly cheery pop of color you might have noticed here and there across Pennsylvania: the bright, vibrant red of winterberries. Besides spicing up a winter’s view, the winterberry is a valuable food source to all manner of wildlife at a time when food availability is scarce. Let’s learn more about it!

The winterberry is a medium-sized woody shrub from the holly family, and it is native across eastern North America. It typically grows no more than 15 feet tall and, unchecked, it can grow into a wild thicket around wetlands and near ponds or streams. In nature, this plant is an important winter resource. Over 48 different bird species feast on the berries during the scarcest time of year, and even some small mammals can take part in the meal. (However, this is no snack for humans; the berries are poisonous to us!)

Besides serving a significant role to wildlife in the winter, the winterberry plant was also an important part of a widely cited 2002 study of habitat corridors to reduce the effect of habitat fragmentation. If we take a step back, habitat fragmentation is when natural areas are interrupted by human development (e.g. roads, shopping centers, etc.)—leaving behind patches of habitat “fragments.” This fragmentation is detrimental to wildlife and plant life because it reduces access to resources and it cuts of connections between members of the same species. However, the most widely proposed solution has focused on creating habitat “corridors”—stretches of habitat plant life connecting the patches.  Though sound in theory, the research behind habitat corridors produced mixed results until a large-scale study from the University of Florida demonstrated the feasibility. Winterberry played an important role in this multi-year project because it can be pollinated by a wide variety of pollinators, verifying that this crucial element of connectivity wouldn’t be lost through the use of corridors.

If we move out of the wild and into our gardens, winterberry is a great addition as a native plant! It is fairly low-maintenance, tolerant of multiple soil types and capable of surviving drier conditions even though it’s typically a wetland plant. The shrub can be pruned into a small “tree,” and it adds lovely greenery in the summer and a splash of color in the winter. However, before the plants can grow the little red berries, a garden will need to have both a male and a female tree within roughly 40 feet of each other to ensure pollination. The wildtype may be a bit tricky to find as many cultivars have been developed to enhance the otherwise small flowers, but it is worth the effort for maintaining native plants!

Connecting to the Outdoors Tip: The next time you go for a walk outdoors in the winter, look for small bright-red berries clustered together near the branches. You will have the best luck near swampy wetlands or ponds, streams, and rivers.

Continue the Conversation: Share your nature discoveries with our community by posting to Twitter and Instagram with hashtag #bioPGH, and R.S.V.P. to attend our next Biophilia: Pittsburgh meeting.


USDA—Winterberry Profile 

EPA—Archived Winterberry Fact Sheet  

Penn State Extension Shrub of the Month—Winterberry 

National Wildlife Federation—Winter Berries for Birds 

Tewksbury et al. 2002: Corridors affect plants, animals, and their interactions in fragmented landscapes 

Select Photos © Vaidor Otsar CC-BY-SA-3.0 and Liz West CC-BY-2.0