By Stephanie Hudak
Summer holds a smorgasbord of energy food for the birds – from insects to your favorite tomatoes. But in winter the pickings get a little slim and that’s where winter berries play a major role in keeping the birds alive until spring. Winter berries come in a wide range of colors, from yummy yellow to brilliant black. And while they are a source of food for the birds, they can also be source of “eye candy” for the gardener.
The most common plant that bears fruit is the holly – an evergreen that bears bright red berries. Beautiful but the berries don’t always stand out strongly against the mass of green leaves. Although you should check out ‘Christmas Jewel,’ a hybrid Ilex, which has an incredible display. If you really want a jaw-dropping sight of red berries, then the deciduous hollies will fill the bill. One of the most popular native winterberries (Ilex vertifcillata) makes an outstanding hedge. It grows up to 15 feet tall and wide, with small serrated leaves and tiny white flowers. The berries begin ripening in late summer but it is after the leaves fall that the show really starts. Bobwhites, flickers and thrushes particularly like this plant. ‘Winter Red’ is a female Gold Medal winner; ‘Winter Gold’ bears orange-yellow berries. For a spreading form look at ‘Harvest Red’ while ‘Sparkleberry’ is more upright. Keep in mind though that all these plants need a “male escort” in order to produce berries; recommended ratio is one male for every four females.
While heavy producers of berries, pyracanthas also generate a lot of thorns – great for keeping predators from nesting birds but tough to work around. But, hey, if you need a “serious hedge” this is your guy. Scarlet firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) grows from 6 to 18 feet tall and wide, producing small white flowers in late spring and in early fall the real drama begins with orange-red berries that last through winter. Firethorns are prone to fungal diseases such as scab and fire blight so look for cultivars that are disease tolerant; ‘Apache’ grows only 4 feet tall with red, long-lasting berries; ‘Fiery Cascade’ grows upright with orange to red berries; ‘Gold Rush’ and ‘Teton’ both have yellow-orange berries. For best fruiting, firethorns need full sun and well-drained soil.
One of my all-time favorite bushes is the spicebush (Lindera benzoin). It has something special to offer all year long. In early spring it produces delicate little yellow-green flowers that bloom directly on bare stems. In the fall the leaves turn a brilliant forsythia-yellow which contrast beautifully with the glowing red fruits. Unfortunately for the gardener they are also coveted by the birds, which make quick meals of them. And if you are in the sharing mood, the larvae of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly will really appreciate you while they dine on the leaves. This is a plant that keeps on giving. Brush against the leaves and you will smell a wonderful spicy scent, as will the crushed twigs. Spicebush grows naturally along streams and moist woods, but it will adapt to drier conditions once established. Likes full sun but given shade it will develop a more open shape.
Don’t forget the beautyberries (Callicarpa americana), another of our native plants. It can grow 8 by 6 feet but it can be hard-pruned to keep it to a size for your garden. In late spring you will get tiny pink-purple flowers and around September you will be rewarded with clusters of light purple berries. For a change, look for ‘Welch’s Pink’ which bears light-pink berries. ‘Luxurians’ (C. japonica) is considered a superior cultivar. Beautyberries will grow in sun or shade and are a snap to grow.
Speaking again of smorgasbord events, you must have a least one viburnum in your yard. There are so many to choose from that it is hard to just mention one or two. The fruits are not as showy as some plants but they are highly desired by our avian friends. ‘Erie’ (Viburnum dilatatum) and the American cranberry bush viburnum (V. trilobum) have some of the longest lasting color. The linden viburnum species produces foliage that is toothed and pucker, and in fall turns yellow, orange and red. The 4-inch flat clusters of white flowers are followed by intense red berries that turn an unusual coral color and last most of the winter. Check out ‘Iroquios’ and ‘Oneida’ for red berries and ‘Michael Dodge’ for yellow fruit. For best fruiting overall, plant more than one linden.
Don’t forget the mahonias. The Oregon grapeholly (Mahonia aquifolium) has seriously pointed leaves that aren’t much fun to back into, but oh, the rest of the plant is worthy. It can be a bit invasive but the babies are easily pulled up. The species grows to about 6 feet by 5 feet. Yellow flowers bloom in early spring with the bold, blue berries forming in summer and staying through winter. Mahonias grow best in dappled shade and even heavy shade.
Truly the best way to attract birds to your garden is to plant a diversity of shrubs and small trees that will provide sugary berries to feed the babies in spring; fatty berries for fall migrants; and persistent berries that stay through the winter for the resident birds. But please, keep in mind those “invasives.” While they may have berries they are not good for the overall environment. Bush honeysuckles, and autumn olives (Eleagnus angustifolia) should be discouraged from being planted anywhere.
Dr. Michael Dirr has written a terrific book on viburnums that will help a lot in choosing the right one for your yard. Look for Viburnums – Flowering Shrubs for Every Season. And Dr. Allan Armitage’s book Armitage’s Native Plants will give you lots of good ideas for using native plants that have desirable berries and more. These books would make great Christmas presents – to yourself or others. And last but not least – arms were made for hugging –use them today.