In autumn, colorful berries replace blossoms

After leaves fall, what remains can add winter interest to the landscape

In the Garden

November 23, 2003|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Berries are like nature's jewelry. They are the perfect garden accessory, adding color and style to autumn foliage, naked winter limbs and evergreens (and ever-blues and ever-silvers) and are great for winter arrangements. In addition, many berry-spangled branches provide vital winter sustenance for wildlife.

Yet while some berries are wildlife favorites, others are the culinary equivalent of spinach and broccoli. For example, many (though not all) of the hollies (Ilex) fall into the `ick' section of the wildlife menu, which means that critters avoid them until there aren't any other choices left on the horticultural plate.

"Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) holds its berries to the bitter end because it's the least favorite of birds," says Ellie Altman, Director of Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely. "After several hard frosts, they get more tender and sweet, but birds eat them last."

Which means the berries enhance the outdoor decor for months. A good thing, since native winterberry's bitter flavor has nothing to do with its ornamental value.

"It has spectacular red fruits on deciduous branches. When the leaves are gone, the berries really stand out," notes Rick Lewandowski, director of the Mt. Cuba Center for Study of Piedmont Flora in Greenville, Del.

Another critter least-favorite and therefore long-lasting shrub fruit is Inkberry (Ilex glabra), an evergreen holly whose berries are a lovely purple-black.

"Inkberry makes a wonderful hedge," says Altman, who also designs native plant gardens. And flowering Crabapple (Malus `Sugar Tyme'), decorated all fall with thick clusters of cherry-red fruits offers a bright focal point that stands out even at a distance.

Beauty, buffet or both

There are loads of fall-fruiting shrubs and trees, both native and non-native. Some are primarily ornamental. Others do double duty as habitat and forage for the critters. In the non-native but good critter-food category, there is California holly (Heteromeles arbutifolia syn. Photinia arbutifolia) with great wads of scarlet berries that birds love. But Purple Barberry (Berberis thunbergii `Atropurpurea'), which has distinctive dark purple foliage all summer that turns a glorious red in fall, produces scarlet berries that are generally shunned by critters, which makes them long-lasting gems in the landscape.

Native berry-bearers include both critter-food specimens and purely ornamental things. Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) carries powder blue berries that birds will eat when pressed but which is a beautiful ornamental, while the bright red berries of scarlet firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) attract thrashers, catbirds, thrushes and more.

"Of course there are all the native viburnums," says Lewandowski. "They have wonderful berries in a variety of colors that birds eat."

V. `Blue Muffin' has blue berries with tiny gold eyes, V. trilobum `Wentworth' has clusters of cranberry-red berries, and Maple Leaf viburnum (V. serefolium) has bluish-black late-season berries.

Many trumpet their berry-bearing capabilities in their common names.

American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) carries thick bracelets of lavender berries (Callicarpa `lactea' berries are milky white) stationed along the limb in a poodle-cut effect. Pearlberry aka `Mother of Pearl' (Symphoricarpos x doorenbosii) wears lushly iridescent pink berries all fall. White baneberry (Actaea alba) is a clump-forming shade perennial that sports delicate clusters of creamy berries like baby black-eyed peas. It's poisonous to humans so avoid it if you have small children in the area, but it's also one of the few things the deer don't munch so it has staying power. Red chokecherry (Aronia arbutifolia) with brilliant scarlet berries and black chokecherry (Aronia melanocarpa) with purple-black berries have lovely autumn foliage and carry their large, and very visible fruits throughout most of the winter.

One of the great things about many native plants - aside from the fact that they are generally adapted to the region and its pollinators - is that they are multi-taskers. For example, the straight, strong branches of V. dentatum have long been used for arrows. "Bayberry (Myrica cerifera) has a beautiful, waxy blue-black berry that people have been making candles out of for centuries," says Altman. "Both the berries and the candles are very fragrant."

Planting and care

While fall is generally the best time to plant all of the above, many consumers still plant primarily in spring, so specific plants can be hard to find late in the season. But garden centers are gradually educating the public to the benefits of fall planting, so the choices are growing.

Meantime, many have fall clear-out sales, which makes it a great time to buy. Some of the shrubs mentioned above are acid-lovers, some prefer shade to sun, some want dry soil, some moist. Be sure to ask for specific cultural needs when you buy.

Before you plant, consider the site. Does it have shade or full sun or a combination? Is the soil acid or alkaline? Is there foot traffic? Even if you don't have kids, do the neighborhood kids pass or stand nearby often? If so, be sure to choose a berry that isn't poisonous.

Finally, it's not a bad idea to also consider the indoors when planting a berry-filled shrub. Berries come in a range of colors, and you can choose a bush that is both beautiful outside and will enhance your decor indoors too.


White Flower Farm

P.O. Box 50

Litchfield, CT 06759-0050


Wayside Gardens

1 Garden Lane

Hodges, SC 29695-0001


Homestead Gardens

743 W. Central Ave.

Davidsonville, MD 21035


Valley View Farms

11035 York Road

Cockeysville, MD 21030


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