Autumn is a berry season, although those berries would end up on my dinner table. However, these berries are beautiful at this time of the year and into the winter. This column appeared in September 2011.
When I walked through the garden the other day I realized how many red berries I have in the fall. Three years ago I noticed for the first time that my holly, ‘Blue Princess,’ and my cotoneasters had finally started producing berries. That berry production has gotten more prolific and beautiful each year.
Hollies are dioecious plants, which means they need separate male and female plants to cross pollinate and produce fruits. While there are many holly cultivars I chose Ilex x meservae ‘Blue Prince’ and ‘Blue Princess’ because they are among the hardiest of the hollies and ‘Blue Princess’ is considered one of the heaviest berry producers.
Both of these hollies are hardy in Zone 5 which is winter temperatures down to minus 20 degrees. They like moist but well drained acid soil and sun, although they will tolerate some shade. Full sun will give the best berry production. ‘Blue Princess’ and ‘Blue Prince’ will both attain a mature size of about 12 feet or more with a spread of up to ten feet. Fortunately they grow slowly only about six inches a year. In six years my ‘Blue Princess’ grew to about four feet tall and three feet wide. The ‘Blue Prince’ is smaller.
I love being able to prune off a few berry-laden branches for Christmas decorations, but I planted the hollies because I wanted more shrubs in the Lawn Bed. I am not ready to give up perennials, but as I get older I am looking for ways to cut down on the labor of maintaining perennials, dividing and cutting back, and weeding. Shrubs are so various with countless foliage forms, textures and colors, and even colorful blooms and berries that I think they add great richness to the garden.
About the same time the hollies I planted two cotoneasters as groundcovers to provide a foil for the conifers I had in the Lawn Bed. They don’t grow very tall, only one or two feet for most varieties and the leaves are small and dark green. They are hardy and very attractive in every season. I couldn’t wait for these to cover the ground individually and planted them much too close together. They have now merged and I’d be hard put to say which is which. One of them produces large quince-like blossoms in the spring. I just learned that the name ‘cotoneaster’ comes from two Latin words meaning similar to quince.
All cotoneasters (cuh-TOE-knee-asters) produce small red berries in the fall which will attract birds, if they are very hungry. They will not attract deer which makes me very happy.
A third red berry that attracts birds in my garden the American highbush cranberry, the native Virburnum trilobum. This shrub is about 12 feet high in my garden and gives me no trouble at all. In the spring it produces flat airy blossoms that contain both fertile and infertile flowers. It is because of the flowers that I planted the highbush cranberry next to the Cottage Ornee. It also has very attractive palmate leaves.
The highbush cranberries turn red in September and they are really beautiful. The birds love them, but I recently learned that they are not only edible for humans, but that they will make a very nice jelly.The berries are easy to pick because they grow in thick clusters and there are no thorns.
The berries can be harvested as soon as they are red, even though they will be crunchy at first. Freezing them before preparing them for processing will soften them up. I have been told that they taste very much like the cranberries, Vaccinium macrocarpon, that are so indispensable on the Thanksgiving table.
The birds are certainly thankful. Most of my berries, without any help from me, are gone by Thanksgiving.
While I welcome holly, cotoneaster, and viburnam berries in my garden I have other red berries that are a source of dismay and frustration. The first is autumn olive, Elaeagnus umbellata, which we bought from the Conservation District many years ago. I planted three or four at the edge of the lawn, happy that they were fast growing and produced berries for the birds. They actually produce berries for me too, but I have never used them even though many people cook them up into a jam.
It did not take us long to see that the wind, or the birds, were seeding autumn olive in the field east of our planting. Over the years our planting died out except for one remaining bush. We are trying to eradicate the autumn olives in the east field.
The other dismaying berries are hips of the pasture rose which was here before we bought our house. We are constantly removing these briary, prickery roses and it is a never ending battle. They are very pretty and I have used sprays of their small red hips in holiday decorations, but mostly I arm myself with a heavy shirt and dungarees and leather gloves and try and cut them back at the root. Again and again.
Shrubs that produce beautiful berries give our gardens a long interesting season, and may attract our beloved birds, but if we are wise, we will be careful when we make our choices. We don’t want to invite trouble when we plant for color and for the birds.