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A Berry Nice Time of Year
October 1 2004
Fall is that time of year when we begin to gather the shucks and pumpkins from the fields, even if it’s only to decorate the lamp post at the end of the driveway. We are not the only ones bringing in the harvest; Mother Nature has done a good job of stocking the pantry for her little progeny, and we can make use of this bounty to decorate our yards, and provide for the local fauna at the same time. Berries, drupes and hips can be a welcome burst of color this time of year, so let’s look at some different plants to lend both beauty and function to the garden.

Berries are a great way to spice up a shrub border that is flagging in the flower power department. One of my favorite shrub families is Viburnum, and there are a slew of them to talk about. V. dentatum, or arrowwood, is a 7’ x 6’ plant that covers up with blue-black berries that you may enjoy for a short time before the birds eat them all. V. lentago, or nannyberry, is a 12’ x 12’ plant that fits that same description. Both these native plants are high on the birds list of things to do this time of year; if you want a berry feature that hangs around a little longer, try V. dilatatum, a Chinese native with red berries that persist well into the winter. ‘Erie’ and the new and improved ‘Cardinal Candy’ have red berries, while ‘Michael Dodge’ has a yellow berry. V. setigerum, or Tea Viburnum also has the red berries in spades, but this native won’t be able to hold onto them as the birds will rush this plant as soon as they ripen (beginning to see a pattern here? Natives are good food sources…). V. opulus (European Cranberry Viburnum) is a European transplant, also with great red berries, but there are enough European birds about to make this one lose berries pretty quickly; our native Cranberry Viburnum (V. trilobum) has red berries, several great cultivars (‘Bailey’s Compactum’, ‘Wentworth’…) and a nice rounded habit that the birds will enjoy almost as much as the berries… As if the berry show wasn’t enough, viburnums put on a fantastic fall color display with their foliage as well! No yard is complete without at LEAST one…

Mother Nature has ways to make sure the larder stays stocked throughout the season. One great example is the chokeberry, or Aronia. Much like their native brethren in the viburnum clan, aronias put on a great show in the fall with the leaves, but the astringently sour fruits are not immediately palatable to the birds. Several months of freezing temps and drying winds take the sting out and convert those sugars and by February, when all the other berries are long gone, these are ready for table. You get the foliage and berry show for the winter, the birds get a back-up for those late season feeds. And this is one shrub that can take whatever situation you put it in, from dry and sandy to downright boggy, full sun to part shade. Everybody wins!

Another great berry for those marshy spots is winterberry (Ilex verticillata). Another native berry machine, this holly isn’t the evergreen we think of as Christmas decoration (That would be I. x meservae, or blue holly, another great berry for the garden). I. verticillata sets it’s berries in late summer, turns a yellow gold in the leaves and then drops it’s foliage to display the berries in all their glory. Most tend towards red berries, but a few cultivars go to the orange side of things and one or two are even yellow. One of my favorite cultivars is ‘Red Sprite’ a little dwarf form that only gets 4’ x 4’, perfect for the middle of the border. Don’t forget these are hollies, so they’ll need a boy to pollinate (‘Jim Dandy’ is the best pollinator for ‘Red Sprite’, ‘Apollo’ is good for the late flowerers like ‘Sparkleberry’ and ‘Winter Red’, and ‘Southern Gentleman’ is the best if you’re trying to cover all the bases with one guy…). Again, these native plants are well liked by the birds, but usually will have enough berries around Christmas to warrant that common name…

Another native holly that berries well, yet holds the foliage, is inkberry (I. glabra). While this berry is not particularly showy (as the common name implies, it’s black…), the smaller habit, wildlife usage, and persistent foliage make this one worth a mention anyway. For those in warmer climes than mine, yaupon (I. vomitoria) is a Zone 7 to 10 evergreen holly with a persistent red berry that gets large shrub to small tree size and looks great; wish I could get away with that one, and I bet the birds in my neighborhood wish that too…

Maybe you want a berry that is a little louder in the color wheel than plain old red. The beautyberries certainly fill that niche with purple to magenta berries; those who can grow yaupon can get away with the lone American version of this plant (Callicarpa Americana). This native beautyberry has a magenta berry (there IS a white berried form) that southern birds have come to know and love. The rest of us will have to make do with the Asian forms (C. japonica, C. bodinieri, and C. dichotoma, all Zone 5-8). My new favorite cultivar is a dichotoma called ‘Early Amethyst” that develops it’s berry color in early August, letting us enjoy those berry features even earlier…

Berries can add loads of color and even more garden enjoyment as they attract our feathered friends into our yards to feed and shelter. Fruits like blueberry and grapes can offer much to us as garden plants even if we never taste a single fruit; sharing brings it’s own rewards and joys and you will feel the warmth of human kindness no less as you watch the birds live on the bounty only you and Mother Nature can provide. Enjoy!
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