Deck the halls with decorative berries
Add color to a drab season with fruit bushes that will last the winter
Illustration by Josh Flanigan
Anyone who has lived here more than six months knows that this part of the country sports a long winter, sometimes nearly unbearably long. It stands to reason that we gardeners would want plants that are interesting year round. Bark, structure, and evergreen foliage all play a role in winter appeal, but bright fruits and berries make the dark season a bit more festive.
Plain old “blue” holly, Ilex x meserveae, is an obvious first stop on the berry parade. Its familiar evergreen foliage is dark and glossy, and its fruit (it is hoped) is prolific and bright red. I love hollies in foundation plantings, where they provide a consistent look and are easy to access when you want to gather branches for decorating. They’re salt tolerant, so they do well near sidewalks and driveways.
There are plenty of other hollies that are just as pretty. My favorites are the winterberries, I. verticillata. Winterberries are deciduous, and when the leaves drop, the berry clusters left behind—usually red, but sometimes yellow or orange—are arresting.
Gardeners sometimes ask me if it is okay to cut holly branches in the late fall to use in holiday décor, and the answer is: absolutely. It is important to note that holly plants are separately sexed, and that in order for the female plants to set fruit, there must be a compatible male around to fertilize them. One male tucked away somewhere, even in a neighbor’s yard, will do the trick for multiple females. Compatibility depends on species and time of bloom, and while it is easy to pair up a male and female with obvious sounding names like Blue Boy and Blue Girl, when in doubt ask a nurseryperson.
Birds love hollies for food and cover. I’ve never seen it myself, but have heard reports of cedar waxwings feasting on overripe berries, becoming drunk, and either flopping on the ground or flying into things as a result. Sounds entertaining.
Snowberry and coralberry
My first exposure to Symphoricarpos albus was as a misplaced foundation planting in front of a house with no landscaping to speak of except a row of peonies, unstaked and ancient in appearance, that looked fantastic for about ten days a year. The snowberry bushes were straggly and gangly, but there was something sweet and appealing about their plump white berries.
Since then, I’ve noticed them in more naturalized settings, where they blend right in. Even prettier is Symphoricarpos x doorenbosii, or Coralberry Amythest, with its compact form and bright pink fruits squashed together in bubbly clusters. Plants can get to about five feet tall and should be easily kept in check with judicious pruning but may also spread by the roots.
Somewhat confusingly, there is another amythest in the fall and winter berryscape, Callicarpa dichotoma, or Early Amethyst, a graceful, arching shrub with vibrant purple fruit clusters that cascade in opposite pairs all the way down slender stems. This is an underused plant that always gets a lot of attention in the garden. It’s not too big—only three or four feet tall—but it can become slightly unwieldy and definitely will spread from the roots. Don’t be afraid to cut it back in the late winter; it blooms on new wood.
There are larger, more upright beautyberries available, like the straight species C. americana and a new cross called Purple Pearls that will bloom later in the year and produce more persistent fruit. If you have the space, consider a mix.
In my own garden, I have mostly stuck with the Koreanspice viburnums (V. carlesii) whose flowers smell so unbelievably good in the early summer. But there is an entire palette of these shrubs to choose from. Two with excellent fruit are American cranberrybush (V. trilobum) and arrowwood (V. dentatum).
The cranberry bush is not to be confused with the commercially grown bog cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, which is botanically only a hair’s breadth from being a blueberry—also a Vaccinium. The American cranberrybush grows twelve feet high or bigger, has maple-like foliage that turns fiery red in the fall, and produces juicy, dangling fruit clusters that hang around until they are eaten by the birds. A popular cultivar is Bailey Compact, which supposedly only gets about six feet tall, making it more appropriate for the home landscape.
Arrowwood produces coarse leaves and blue berries, and it shoots to its full height of nine to ten feet at a pretty fast rate if given full sun and ample moisture. A more diminutive choice might be Christom, a.k.a. Blue Muffin, which only gets about five feet tall. There is some trickiness in getting the arrowwood to bloom, as it has both male and female flowers on one plant but cannot fertilize itself nor a clone of itself. For best fruit production, variety is essential—even just one straight species plant near a group of Christom will increase berrying odds.
Magnolia seed pods are bizarre-looking, long, cone-shaped things with brilliant red seeds protruding in every direction. Crabapples might be the queen of the winter fruits and come in every size, shape, and color imaginable, from tiny weeping specimens to espaliers to majestic thirty-foot-tall lawn trees. And let’s not forget the dogwoods and elderberries.
These plants provide food and cover for all sorts of wildlife—birds, yes, but also for squirrels, deer, field mice, and other creatures. If that’s a concern for you, seek professional advice before you buy.
There’s one more thing these winter beauties all have in common, something I didn’t set out to make a theme but noticed along the way: not every genus is strictly, entirely North American, but each has native species within it to choose from.