Now that Connecticut no longer has any tree branches for birds to sit on, thanks to the freak October nor’easter, the birds in our yard are settling for perches on stone walls, steps, Adirondack chairs, and any convenient sheltering shrub. It is not really the time of year on the avian calendar for loitering and taking in the scenery, however. The remaining migrators in the area are flocking up and feeding, and the natives are securing winter hideouts and banking seeds in cracks and crevices. The few thin hours between December dawn and dusk are filled with a fluttering urgency.
On recent mornings a group of six bluebirds – residents or travelers, I don’t know – have been frequenting a winterberry bush beside the back walk. One or two perch and pluck berries while the others watch from nearby fence posts and rails, waiting their turn. The bluebirds are normally shy birds who keep their distance from the house, but the bulging red winterberries are too much of a temptation, so we have had these handsome birds pressing in on the house, filling the window panes with passing flashes of blue. The fluttering urgency of our own lives in this holiday season is forgotten completely as we stand transfixed by the windows accepting this rare gift of bright color from the stark year-end landscape.
We have had winterberry growing at a corner of the house for several years, planted without consideration of the demanding requirements of the shrub’s love life. A cousin of holly in the genus ilex, winterberry is dioecious, meaning that no individual plant has both pollen and ovules, the keys to fruiting and reproduction. The plants are either male or female. For years, our barren spinster species, Winter Red, led a lonely and fruitless existence.
This summer Kate and I added a dwarf female winterberry species, Red Sprite, by the walk. Red Sprite is a early bloomer and Winter Red is a late bloomer, but without eligible males, none of this bloomer talk leads to anything. So armed with a little research on suitable early and late blooming mates for our winterberry ladies, we scoured the garden centers until we came up with a couple paramours – Jim Dandy and Southern Gentleman – and planted them near the female shrubs.
Through the efficient agency of hundreds of tiny wasp cupids, there was enough pollen/ovule action over the summer to make both the ladies blush profusely this fall with crimson berries. It is the colorful display we had hoped for. We had not anticipated, however, the powerful draw the winterberries have on the bluebirds. It warms our hearts to see our old ilex spinster looking so flirty for the new winter season in her bright red beads and sky blue feathers.