Winterberry Holly – Ilex Verticillata: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Ornamental “Berry” of Wild Plants

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Winterberry holly is a stunning ornamental shrub, but not so edible and medicinal. However, we’re trying to be festive this December, so let’s bump this feature up in the spirit of winter holidays. This is a plant to consider mainly for its looks and for crafting reasons, like wreaths.

Winterberry holly (ilex verticillata) is fairly common in central Ontario. It’s usually found along banks of streams and lakes, and edges of marshes. Mountain holly (ilex mucronata) can be found here too. Originally, I was calling it a vine (perhaps thinking of American bittersweet), but thanks to a reader I’ve got it sorted out that it’s actually a shrub.

Sometimes winterberry holly is called black alder, not to be confused with alder.

This is another not so edible and not too medicinal plant getting a bump this December because I wanted a winter theme. Anyway, knowing your toxic berries is just as important as knowing the edible ones.

Winterberry Holly - Ilex Verticillata
Winterberry Holly – Ilex Verticillata

Edible Uses of Winterberry Holly

It’s not generally considered edible for humans and a large quantity of berries, which are actually drupes not berries, can cause poisoning. Leave the fruits for the robins and other wildlife.

Now if you search if it’s edible, you’ll find a handful of sites recommending the leaves for a caffeine free tea. I have to question that. I may stand corrected someday.

Medicinal Uses of Winterberry Holly

Winterberry holly is primarily said to support these body systems:

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Medicinal tags include Astringent and Febrifuge. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes, as “fever bush”, exactly as it sounds. But we know fevers should run their course. Anyway, all parts of this plant can cause gastrointestinal upset, low blood pressure and even poisoning if ingested in large quantity.

Alternative Uses of Canada Holly

These stunning berry laden branches are used for floral arrangements, winter wreaths and many similar crafts.

Growing Ilex Verticillata

If planting this holly, make sure to double check you’re getting the native winterberry holly and not the invasive Asian variety. You’ll need a male and a female plant for the stunning red berries. It’ll take pruning, although winterberry is a slow grower in comparison to many plants.

The main reason to plant winterberry holly is the ornamental bright red berries in the wintertime. Similar pops of red can be added to your scenery via stalks of red osier dogwood. Subtly, low growing evergreen American wintergreen has green and red leaves. Partridge berry is another low growing plant that keeps its leaves, similar to wintergreen, with red berries that can last all winter. Both of the later are lovely ground cover and can grow in less than ideal soils, acidic, even sandy. They look great around the trunks of a tree or atop rocks, even along shady driveways. Between plants like these and perhaps some evergreens like our native cedar, pine, hemlock, juniper, yew and spruce a landscape can be popping with color all winter.

Another way to add winter interest (and help the bees!) is to not whack down everything in the fall. Check out these bee balm in the snow:

You’ll have flocks of seed feeders including various finches by leaving tall seedy plants too!


All parts are toxic, at least in large quantities.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

#ads in References

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Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

The Earthwise Herbal, Volume II: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

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