Robins ate the winterberries

For Christmas 2015, I bought a small Winter Red winterberry shrub (Ilex verticillata). Sometime the following January, something ate the red berries. I suspected the robins, but did not have proof. This Christmas, the winterberry bush was double in size with multitudes of beautiful red berries. Below is a photo of the winterberry on December 12, 2016.

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On December 28, a small flock of American robins (Turdus migratorius), perhaps 10 or so, showed up for lunch. They sat in the magnolia tree above the winterberry and took turns swooping down to enjoy the berries. Perhaps they have a custom about not eating the festive red berries until after Christmas. You never know about birds. They also sampled some holly berries, which did not seem to be as tasty. Below is a photo of 1 robin enjoying the winterberries. That was the only photo I got of the robins. Drat.

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In a short period of time, the Winter Red winterberry was bare, and the robins were off. I didn’t get around to taking the photo below of the bare winterberry shrub until January 9, but it was bare by the time the robins left on December 28. So, a small puzzle of the garden is solved. I am eyewitness to the fact that the robins ate the winterberries.

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In Wild Fruits, Thoreau includes a section on winterberries. He identifies them by their common names of winterberry and black alder, but he also identifies them as Prinos verticillatus, rather than Ilex verticillatus.

The Monticello shop website sheds some light on this name disparity. Carolus Linaeus, the Swedish father of modern taxonomy, gave the name of Prinos verticillatus to this native American shrub, thus indicating that it is the species Bernard McMahon, a Philadelphia nurseryman at the time, listed as “Ilex prinoides–Deciduous Holly.” It’s complicated. Thoreau has something to say about Europeans giving names to American native species in Wild Fruits, pretty much indicating that they didn’t know what they were talking about in naming American species much of the time, often giving a European twist to naming that was unwarranted. McMahon was right, winterberries are deciduous hollies, but they didn’t get their Ilex name until later.

The Monticello website also mentions that George Washington was probably thinking of winterberries when he rode out looking for the native Red Berry plant to transplant to Mount Vernon. I’m thinking I have a historical shrub in my garden.

Finally, the Monticello website mentions that the dark green foliage of the winterberry turns yellow in the fall. This is a great relief to me since I feared that my Winter Red winterberry was in ill health when its leaves turned yellowish in October, as can be seen in the photo below, taken October 16.

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Winterberries have male and female plants, both of which are necessary if you want the red berries, which of course I do. In my garden, there is a female Sparkleberry winterberry with a male Jim Dandy companion. These are early bloomers. The female Winter Red has a male Southern Gentleman companion for later blooms. So far at least, the Winter Red is superior to the Sparkleberry in all-around growth and berry production. RareFind Nursery catalog calls Winter Red the standard against which other winterberries are measured. I think so too.

I’ve always been annoyed that the Sparkleberry was marketed as a native Ilex verticillata by the local nursery where I bought it, but it’s really a cross with I. serrata, which is a Japanese winterberry. Impulse buying is not good at garden nurseries. Best to plan on 2 trips–the 1st to shop around, and the 2nd to buy only after going home and doing some serious research and thinking about the purchase.

But back to Wild Fruits. Thoreau takes into account the usefulness of wild fruits for human consumption, the appeal of their beauty to the eye, and their importance to wildlife. As to human consumption, Thoreau does not seem shy about tasting wild berries, but does so not foolishly, but through knowledge and experience. He mentions that he learned about some edible berries by walking behind an Indian in Maine and observing the Indian eating fruits which Thoreau had never thought of tasting before that. He also mentions the Indian’s hand-to-mouth use of berries. I like that. I have a hand-to-mouth habit of eating blueberries and raspberries in the garden during the summer. Also sugar-snap peas. Most never make it to the kitchen.

Thoreau often notes the beauty of wild fruits to the eye. In the case of the winterberries, he describes how handsome they are, first the bright-red berries against the dark-green leaves of summer, and also later when the berries remain bright red on the bare branches. When he describes high blueberries in another section, he says that our appreciation of their flavor commonly prevents our observing their beauty. So we admire holly berries, which we don’t eat, yet fail to admire the beauty of blueberries, which we do eat.

Winterberries are significant wild fruits in Thoreau’s mind not because humans eat them, but because robins, partridges, and mice do. In November, he discovers the skins of winterberries at the entrance of a mouse burrow under a stump, the mouse having gathered the winterberries in the night and eaten the insides near the safety of its burrow. Thoreau’s response to this discovery underscores his understanding that edible fruits include fruits for wildlife, not just for humans. He writes, What pretty fruit for the mice, these bright prinos berries! 

When he is describing chokeberries in another section of Wild Fruits, Thoreau says the taste is pleasant enough, but they leave a mass of dry pulp in the mouth. But, he says, it’s worth the while to see their profusion, if only to know what Nature can do, but she can do some things as well as others and has other children to feed beside us.

Is it any wonder that we continue to read Thoreau, and that we continue to find hope and solace in doing so.

Next winter, I hope to have more berries in the garden for the robins to feast on. More winterberries, more holly berries, and, hopefully, some little crabapples from the Golden Raindrops crabapple trees even.

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