We are at the Winter Solstice. This is the time when we view the sun in its apparent most southern route throughout the year. It is the day of the shortest amount of daylight. Even though the sunsets have begun to slowly get later from the earliest setting of the year in mid-December, the sunrises have also been getting later.

From this date until the summer solstice of late June, the amount of daylight will continue to increase each day. This lengthening is very short at first and we hardly notice it for a few weeks.

We also label this solstice as the beginning of winter. Conditions at this time are usually very winterish with cold temperatures and an ample snowpack. All of December this year has been a winter wonderland — no need to wait until the solstice to experience this season.

With white blankets as far as most of us can see and with our daily movements through snow, perhaps that is why we now seek other colors such as green and red as we approach the holidays. There is more color in our landscape and greens are easy to see in Northland forests. Several species of pines, spruces, balsam, junipers and other conifers keep us seeing winter green. But finding red colors in this winter scene are a bit harder to locate.

Going back a few weeks during the days before there was a snow cover in the region, there were several trees and shrubs that held red berries and fruits on their branches. These berries and fruits contain seeds and so the plant uses red colors to get the attention of birds and mammals to find and devour them, thus dispersing the seeds within.

During my walks at that time, I easily found crab apples, hawthorns, mountain ashes, highbush cranberries, sumacs and roses that were holding berries and fruits of this bright color. I was not the only one to see these on trees in the woods; various birds and mammals were dining on them as well. But I also found another small shrub growing in swamps that was loaded with tiny red berries: the winterberry holly.

Winterberry holly as seen in the autumn. (Photo by Larry Weber)
Winterberry holly as seen in the autumn. (Photo by Larry Weber)

Hollies are well known when we get to this time of December. But the holly most associated with the holidays is not our native holly. American holly (Ilex opaca), with its red berries and green leaves, even in the winter, is a favorite of many at this time.

Though it does grow wild in the United States, it is native to the southeast and does not grow here. Our native holly, also called winterberry holly or black alder (Ilex verticillata), has branches filled with minute bright-red berries, but unlike the holly to the south, it drops its leaves when other deciduous trees shed theirs.

Going past swamps many times in the last several weeks, I have seen the abundance of this shrub with its colorful berries.

Winterberry holly is part of the wetland community along with speckled alders and willows. Like other hollies, plants are dioecious; male and females are separate plants. Back in July, the female trees opened their numerous tiny white flowers. In the midst of the thick foliage, this flora could easily be overlooked, but pollen from the males reached them so that the berries could develop.

Unlike the southern holly, our northern holly with leaves absent allowed the berries to be easily seen and eaten. Now, in December, many are devoid of their little red fruits, but others still hold the colors that add to the winter scene.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber