Hunting for bright red winterberries in northern Vermont
Armand Patoine has 200 peonies, 2,500 daylilies, and this fall he planted 2,200 daffodil bulbs. He works in multiples. But this time of year, he hibernates. Or that’s the word he uses… except when the winterberries are in full berry. Then he goes up to Concord with his clippers, to a huge stand of winterberries right on the side of Route 2, where he’s gotten permission from the landowner to cut branches.
But apparently a lot of people skip the permission. Reporter Erica Heilman paid him a visit.
Armand: "We're outside of Concord, Vermont. There's an area where it's all Ilex verticillata, or more commonly known as winterberry. It's a native holly that drops its leaves in the fall, but retains its red berries. It's very prized for Christmas decorations. And you need a male and a female to produce berries. And to purchase them in a nursery — a two gallon pot is over $30. It's very expensive. You don't see very many people growing them."
Armand: "I think one is to the price, and two is ignorance."
Erica: "One of the reasons we're here is you sent me an article — can you talk about what that's about?"
Armand: "Oh, winterberry has a very comical side to it, Erica Heilman. This time of the year, or earlier, like the beginning of November, along the roadsides, you see cars pulled over with ladies outside with loppers. Or sometimes even step ladders, cutting massive boughs from those winterberries for Christmas decorations. Because to go to a florist, an 18-inch branch loaded with winterberry is over $25."
Erica: "So this is a long tradition of stealing."
Armand: "Yes. And three years ago, I came here with my friends, the two sisters. And we're down in there harvesting massive bundles of branches of the winterberry. A game warden pulled up behind the truck. And of course, they were scared and nervous. ‘We're gonna get arrested!’ And I said ‘No, no, no, I have permission from the man that owns this. I asked him if we could pick some Ilex verticillata branches.’ And my friend says, ‘Well, why didn't you say winterberry? Who's gonna know that?’ I said, ‘Well, that's the reason that I said Ilex verticillata.’"
Erica: "So this is all in the spirit of Christmas."
Armand: "Yes. This is a tradition that has gone back so long. The Victorians, they decorated Christmas with what they found outside. They didn't go to the store. All their decorations were taken from the wild. They brought the wild into their homes for Christmas. They would take the sumac red clumps, and they would crystallize them with sugar, heavy sugar water. They would use the hydrangeas that they dried while they were still pure white — that would be the snow on the trees. So their whole house was like a big floral arrangement at Christmas time."
Erica: "Who in your past has been sort of influential to make you this way ..."
Armand: "My mother."
"This time of the year, or earlier, like the beginning of November, along the roadsides, you see cars pulled over with ladies outside with loppers. Or sometimes even step ladders, cutting massive boughs from those winterberries for Christmas decorations. Because to go to a florist, an 18-inch branch loaded with winterberry is over $25."Armand Patoine
Erica: "Did you decorate with your mother at Christmas?"
Armand: "Yes. My father and my brothers were out deer hunting. They're out of the house. They're out of the way. We're more free to do whatever we wanted. Grapevine garlands with clear miniature lights woven in greens, pine cones, white birch twigs, winterberry, it was a blast going out in the wild and collecting all this stuff. The stuff in the stores was just too tacky. Too gaudy. Those big tinsel garlands? It looks like something at a McDonald's. Winterberry was not manmade. It was God's gift to us. And it's free. And you can ask permission from the landowners. But it's everywhere. So you're never going to pick it all. And you're bringing something into your house that God made. And anyone that's interested in cardinals and wants cardinals coming to their home, winterberry is the shrub to plant. They love winterberries. In fact, my winterberries at home were so loaded, the limbs were hanging on the ground. Now there's not a berry to be seen."
Erica: "Does that mean we're not going to find any today?"
Armand: "There's a few down there. See?"
Erica: "I don't see them."
Armand: "Well, you don't have the eye... See this here Erica Heilman. If you're going to buy something like that at a nursery, it would be over $30."
We tromped around in this massive winterberry stand. Armand introduced me to the females and to the males and he pointed out hybrids, and then it got dark and we went back to the car.
Erica: "So we're done. What do you want to say about Christmas?"
Armand: "Christmas is coming. The geese are getting fat. Please to put a penny in the old man's hat. If you haven't had a penny, a half a penny will do. If you don't have a half a penny, God bless you."
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