Berried Treasures in the Winter Garden

Posted: December 21, 2011

Winter need not be confined to a dull palette of brown, gray, and dirty white. With some planning, evergreen foliage, bark, stems, seeds, berries, grasses, and even flowers can bring color and life to the fourth season in the garden. So put on your boots and slog through the snow, ice, and cold to find the berried treasures that await in the winter garden.
Nandina Domestica

Nandina Domestica

Many plants produce fruits or berries to entice birds and animals to feed during summer and autumn, but fewer have berries that persist long into winter. Persistent berries are often bright red; a sharp contrast that adds pizzazz to the muted colors of winter, but also stands out to the eyes of hungry birds – not only the birds that stick around, but also migratory birds returning in early spring. Here are a few of my favorite red-berried trees and shrubs for long-lasting winter color.

Red Chokeberry – Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima.’ This native 6 to 8 foot high suckering shrub has brilliant red fall foliage as well as vibrant red berries; these mealy, sour berries hang on all winter, slowly shriveling and fermenting, until early spring when hungry robins return. The shrub is adaptable to a wide variety of growing conditions, from sun to light shade, dry to wet soil.

Winterberry – Ilex verticillata cultivars. There are numerous cultivated varieties and hybrids of this native deciduous holly; the key in selection is to include at least one male plant suitable for pollinating the female variety you select, since berries form only on the female plants . Height is 6 to 10 feet with a similar spread; adaptable to a range of growing conditions, but fruits best in full sun. The usually bright red berries densely line the branches for a magnificent display that persists often into January; but I do see birds eating these berries in early winter.

Heavenly Bamboo – Nandina domestica. This is not native, but it is also not a bamboo, so there is no fear of aggressive spreading tendencies in our climate. This semi-evergreen shrub with tropical-looking foliage also has some of the best-looking berries around, at least from our view, as birds do not eat them. This 6 to 8 foot high shrub grows in sun or shade, even dry shade, and develops huge panicles of spectacular bright-red berries that last all winter. Not all cultivated varieties get that large or develop fruit, though.

Highbush Cranberry – Viburnum trilobum. The scarlet fruits of this native shrub are edible, but extremely tart. They hang in weighty clusters from the branches of this large 8 to 12 foot shrub and usually persist long into winter, waiting for really hungry birds. This plant prefers well-drained soil in sun; its coarse foliage and large size makes it a good choice for screening or a mixed border.

Hawthorn – Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King.’ This selection of native hawthorn is a small tree with a mature height and spread of about 25 feet, and a lovely rounded habit. The gray-green stems set off the display of long-lasting bright red berries, but watch out for the sharp thorns.

Flowering Crabapple – Malus species and cultivars. There are hundreds to choose from, with a wide range of heights and growing habits, but look for varieties with disease resistance and persistent fruit. I do see birds devouring the small fruits in winter, but some will last into early spring. A few good selections include ‘Donald Wyman,’ ‘Red Jewel,’ ‘Red Jade,’ Sugar Tyme™, ‘Red Splendor,’ ‘Indian Magic,’ ‘Adams,’ and ‘Firebird.’

These suggestions are but a small sampling of the possibilities for the winter garden. Other persistent fruits to be found in colors ranging from red and orange to blue and white include rosehips, firethorn, grapeholly, cotoneaster, bayberry, hardy orange, persimmon, sumac, snowberry, coralberry, sapphireberry, and all the other great viburnums out there. The winter garden can be a feast for the eyes as well as for the birds.