Autumn is on the wane around Dollar Lake and the brightest leaves of fall have already fallen. The oaks are just coming into their own brunt umber glory and a few crimson hued creepers are still putting on a show, but the peak is past – the bloom is off the rose – the check has been mailed. Tucked away in the swales and peeking out from the birch lined woods, the Michigan Holly shrubs are just entering their season of glory. In fact, they will be on display through the winter.
I guess it depends from where you hail as to what you call this plant. In some parts it is called Black Alder and in others it is named Common Winterberry. In Canada it is called Canada Holly and it is probably no great leap of logic to assume that the name Virginia Winterberry originated in Virginia. If your name is Bob and this plant appears in your yard, then Bob-berry might be appropriate – not accurate, mind you, but appropriate. Technically, this scarlet berried shrub is called Ilex verticillata and that was the official name bestowed by Asa Gray in 1856. It really doesn’t matter, however, because in Michigan it is called Michigan Holly and, since I am from Michigan and my name is not Bob, then Michigan Holly it will be.
In a way, it also doesn’t matter what the stuff is called because it is so glorious. Holly Cow! Theirs is the combined effect of a thousand points of red merging into a solid swipe of crimson when viewed from afar. The vibrant colors come from the berries and not from the leaves. As a Holly plant this one is a slight disappointment. The elliptical leaves go from green to dull purple to dead in a short time. They drop off without fanfare and don’t stick around to provide an emerald background for the red berries. That is what hollies are supposed to do right? Well, this one may be lax in the leaf but it certainly makes up for this in berriness. The leaves would only get in the way.
At a casual glance, it might appear that these plants are strictly a wetland species but this is an illusion. They are known to grow in a wide variety of soil conditions ranging from wet to quite dry. At a closer glance, you will notice that those scarlet sprigs are widely spaced when in dry woods and densely packed when in wet conditions. It is safe to say that they are at their best when in marshy swales where they will form dense thickets beneath the canopy of willow and spruce.
Because the Michigan Holly is a dioecious (where the male and female flowers are born on separate plants), only the female plants bear fruit. The males just stick it out all winter secure in the knowledge that they had something to do with this. At least you know that you can refer to the berry-producing individuals as “she” and the twiggy winter sticks as “he” (or, sir or madam if you prefer).
Birds especially enjoy the female of the species. Dozens of types (48 according to one reference) ranging from White-throated Sparrows to Ruffed Grouse feast on the feminine-produced fruits. Wild-eyed flocks of winter robins are especially fond of them. I saw multiple gangs pillaging the local Holly shrubbery this past weekend.
Unfortunately, you and I are condemned to admire the Michigan Holly from a distance. Oh sure, you can pop the fruits to see the gushy orange interior or try out some artsy photography on the berry clusters, but you may not eat them. Like so many other wild fruits, they are poisonous to humans. Delicious upon the eye, they are, but deadly upon the tongue.