Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Our native Winterberry.
I hope y'all are ready for Christmas and have all your cookies made and your presents wrapped! With all of that done, you can sit down and start working on your garden for next year. No, I'm not crazy! This is the perfect time of year to start thinking of next spring and the improvements that you want to make in your gardens. One way to improve your gardens and what you have in them is to include some native shrubs and trees that the native insects, birds and animals can use as their grocery store now in this cold weather and in the spring and summer when creatures like the Monarch butterfly will be in your area. Most of my information on native plants will include those on the east coast of the United States, from zones 1-8, with an emphasis on plants in zones 5, 6 and 7. If anyone is interested, I can also discuss other areas of the country and the native plants in those areas. I hope to make this the first of many articles on native plants - so let me start out with a basic overview. Just give me one minute as I get up on my soapbox!
O.K! Why native plants?
As I have written in other blogs, native fauna can only survive and thrive on the plants that were here when they began to develop thousands of years ago. Some may ask, why can't the native fauna eat or find shelter in plants that have been here for a few hundred years? Unfortunately, plants and animals don't have the ability to change their biology that quickly and need the plants that they 'grew up with'. Plants and animals have adapted to each other, sometimes in very specific ways. Take the koala bear in Australia, its main diet is eucalyptus leaves from which it receives over 90% of its water intake. With the decline of habitat and the clearing of eucalyptus groves, the koala is now in danger of extinction in many parts of Australia.
The stress on remaining populations has allowed what was once relatively harmless bacterial infections to become deadly in koala populations where their habitat is threatened or in decline. Why is this important to us here in the United States? Do you remember years ago when the Monarch butterflies would make their way south and stop off in your neighborhood to rest and feed? Do you wonder where they have gone? With the increase in human development and the destruction of woodlands and grasslands throughout the United States, the food source for these wonderful butterflies has rapidly declined to a point where the Monarch butterfly is in trouble. Monarch larvae (caterpillars) eat only the nectar of the milkweed plant and with the decline of this important native plant, we are losing our Monarchs! There is a website dedicated to the preservation of the Monarch butterfly and it gives homeowners information on how to set up your own Monarch Waystation in your yard (http://www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/). It is a very interesting website and has lots of information on what we can do to save the Monarch butterfly. This is just one animal in trouble - there are many others. We in suburbia are the last bastion of hope for our native plants and animals. So, as I get down off my soapbox, let's talk about one very important native shrub that will feed the birds and look beautiful all seasons of the year!
The native winterberry - did you know that this shrub is a holly? It is the only deciduous (loses its leaves in the winter) holly in the United States. It doesn't have the glossy green leaves of the holly that you are used to seeing in yards and used as greens during Christmas but it gives one of the most beautiful displays of bright red in your winter garden that you will ever see! Like other hollies, the winterberry (Ilex verticillata) needs both a male and female plant to make the berries you see every winter. One male winterberry in your yard in enough to pollinate all of your female shrubs. Both the male and female winterberries have beautiful white flowers in the spring and green leaves in the spring, summer and fall but the male shrubs lose their leaves every winter and then fade into the background of your winter garden. Winterberries are native to the United States and Canada east of the Mississippi and believe it or not, they are also native to Texas.
The winterberry is the larval host of the Henrys Elfin butterfly in Texas and the berries on your female shrubs will feed mockingbirds, bluejays, robins (in the late summer), cedar waxwings, and other native birds. I have seen starlings sitting in the shrubs in the late summer, trying to eat the berries but after one or two, they will leave the berries to the native birds that gobble them up as fast as they can swallow them. There are several cultivars of the winterberry available today, including Ilex verticillata 'Nana' Red Sprite (female) and Ilex verticillata 'Jim Dandy' (male). Most of the cultivars are selected for their bright red berries and growth habit. Depending on your area - research which cultivar may be best for you. All winterberries love low, wet areas and grow best in your soggiest areas of your garden. For the best berry production, give your shrubs full sun and enough open area to allow the berry laden branches to weep - sometimes almost hitting the ground when the berry production is at its best. You can also bring in branches of wonderful bright red berries for your Christmas decorating but instead plant them next to windows or doors where you can see the fabulous red color all winter - or at least until the birds strip the branches of the berries! What a great way to have great winter interest in the garden while, at the same time, feeding your native birds a high quality, sugar filled scrumptious meal!
Next time - viburnums!