Coming up Route 14, on the left hand side of the road just outside of Trout Run, several stands of winterberry holly bushes grow. Since the leaves have fallen off the trees, the winterberry holly's red berries give a splash of color to the countryside.
Perhaps, you've seen the bright red berries, called drupes, of the winterberry holly bush and, being unsure of what they were, called them Christmas berries.
The common name of Christmas berry for the winterberry holly came down from our early ancestors who did not have the fancy balls, lights and trinkets that we use today to decorate our homes for Christmas. Instead they decorated their homes with items found in nature, and boughs of the winterberry holly were one of their favorites to use.
Winterberry holly, right, grows in
the same areas as does alder,
has leaves that resemble those
of that species and even may
be called black alder, but holly
is in no way related
to alder trees.
The name of the bittersweet shrub,
shown at left, is said to come
from the taste of the vine’s
inner bark. According to
the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention,
the plant is toxic.
Another common name for this bush is black alder. Many years ago I had been out hunting grouse with Charlie Fox and we came upon a bush loaded with red berries. Charlie commented that the bush was a black alder; however, after telling him that he was wrong, I went on to say that it was winterberry holly.
Along with black alder, winterberry holly also is called Canadian holly, swamp holly and fever bush.
The winterberry holly, which usually is found as a shrub 6 to 12 feet high, grows in swamps, wet meadows and along the shoreline of streams, lakes and ponds. It is one of our deciduous hollies.
Although the plant is in no way related to the alders, the winterberry holly grows in the same areas and appears as an alder. The common name of black alder comes from the fact that it often grows among the alders, with leaves shaped somewhat similar to those of an alder, and, during the fall, the leaves turn black.
True alders have neither petal flowers nor fleshy fruit but do have catkins and dry fruit produced in a small cone.
Individual plants of the winterberry holly will bear either male or female flowers. The flowering period varies from April to July and later in colder climates. Because of this late blooming, frost damage to the flower is infrequent; however, a summer's drought can stop the development of the fruit.
Male blossoms are borne in clusters, with each attached to the twig by a common stalk, while the female flowers occur singly. Both flowers are borne on the basal part of the current year's twig growth.
It will take at least three years before a shrub will start to produce fruit. A large shrub can bear several thousand red berries.
If a female winterberry plant is to bear fruit, a source of pollen must be close by. Although the pollen needed can be from a male of another holly species, it must flower at the same time as the winterberry shrub.
Another berry that gives color to the drab November woods is the bittersweet. Aldo Leopold wrote, in Sands County Almanac, "I like the bittersweet because my father did and because deer, on the first of July each year, begin suddenly to eat the new leaves, and I have learned to predict this event to my quests. I cannot dislike a plant that enables me, a mere professor, to blossom forth annually as a successful seer and prophet."
We have two types of bittersweet in Pennsylvania. One is our native bittersweet, Celastrus scandens, which commonly is called American bittersweet. It is not as abundant in our area because it is difficult to cultivate and, in the wild, the plant has suffered from over cutting.
American bittersweet has a lance-shaped leaf, with the berries growing on the ends of the vine.
The second type is the oriental bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus, which also is known as round-leafed bittersweet. It has been particularly hard on American bittersweet because it is easy to grow and will grow in a wide variety of habitats, with berries growing along the vine. Gardeners and decorators find the oriental bittersweet more attractive.
The color of the arils (coating around the red fruit) is different on the two plants. In the American bittersweet, the coating is orange, and in the oriental variety, the coating is either a tan or light yellow.
The name bittersweet is said to come from the vine's inner bark, which is said to have a bitter-sweet taste. One book stated that it has many medicinal abilities, including the treatment for cancer, liver, skin ailments and rheumatism.
In olden days, the bittersweet berries were crushed and then applied to warts and other skin conditions; however, a warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed bittersweet as a toxic plant.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.