Winter Berries for the Birds

By Kathy Conner Cornell VCE Southside Master Gardener Many of us enjoy feeding the birds during the winter. However, insect eaters aren’t interested in bird seed. Often they will feed on winter berries. The purists feel that you should never feed the birds but provide appropriate plants for winter food and berries fit the bill (so to speak). My favorite winter berry plant is winterberry, Ilex verticillata, The plant gets these fabulous red berries that bluebirds especially love. Because it is a holly it is dioceous, meaning that there are male and female plants. Be aware that only females bear fruit and must have a male close by for the fruit to develop. One male can service several females. The fruits appear in September and persist until March/April if the birds haven’t already cleaned the plant bare. Winterberry is not that picky about location and is alright with wet soils. It flowers better in full sun thus will have more berries. Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana, has these beautiful lilac to purple berries. I have observed mockingbirds feasting on the berries. The small light pink flowers last for 2 months in the summer. I have seen lots of bees lapping their nectar. The leaves have a lime green color. Beautyberry is ok with most soils and does bloom better in full sun.
The colorful purple berries of the native Beautyberry shrub provide winter food for the birds. We look to our flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, to give us the early flowers in spring. But the dogwood also has red berries that are food for the birds. The clustered glossy red drupes appear in September and persist until the end of the year and possibly later. Michael Dirr mentions in “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” that 42 species of birds have been reported feeding on the berries. In natural settings, dogwoods are an edge of the forest plant. However since many people want dogwoods in their front yard, many of the cultivars are fine with full sun. The eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana, is not really a cedar but a juniper. Juniper berries are often associated with European dishes but don’t forget that the berries are also used to make gin. Calling it a berry is a real misnomer because the eastern red cedar is a gymnosperm so does not flower therefore could not bear fruit. What appears to be a berry is really the female cone that often appears blue. Cedar waxwings love juniper berries. Bayberry, Myrica (Morella) pensylvanica, is a semi-evergreen shrub that we associate with those wonderful bayberry scented candles. This plant can get tall and tends to sucker so can form a colony. However, there are dwarf varieties that are better behaved in the landscape. It prefers sandy soils but grows in our clay soils also. It gets a small berry that appears in September and persists until April. This is another plant that needs a male for the female to produce berries. Flowering dogwood, winterberry and eastern red cedar are all native to Southside. Beautyberry is native a little more east and bayberry is native to coastal Virginia. Use of natives is more supportive to our local ecosystems. While we are all still practicing ‘social distancing’ due to COVID-19, and all Halifax County buildings remain closed to the public, if you have gardening questions, you can best reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to If you can’t email, you can call and leave a message at the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383, giving us your name, telephone number, and nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is checked timely and someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Keep washing your hands, wear your mask and grow some winter berries for the birds.