UNITED STATES—Just as many flowers attract pollinators with color, some types of fruit employ color to get the attention of birds and other animals. Just as many flowers reward their pollinators with nectar, fruit is its own reward to the animals that eat it. The only catch is that those who want the fruit must disperse the seed within. For both the hungry animals and the fruiting plants that lack mobility, it is a rather equitable arrangement.
Much of the fruit that uses this technique ripens in autumn, and linger through winter, when there is not much other fruit. It is available to migratory birds and animals that want to fatten up for winter. Unlike nuts and large seeds that get buried locally by squirrels, the tiny seeds of winter berries typically get eaten and ‘dispersed’ more remotely. Some actually need to be scarified by digestion before they will germinate.
Because they put as much effort into attracting vectors to disperse their seed as flowers put into attracting pollinators, fruit and berries can add significant color to the home garden. Oranges, mandarins, lemons, grapefruits and other citrus are quite colorful, even though they do not expect to be taken away by birds, To attract crows, persimmon fruits get as colorful for winter as their foliage was through autumn.
Firethorn (pyracantha) is probably the most colorful and profuse of the ornamental berries. Various specie and cultivars of cotoneaster produce similar berries, but not quite so prolifically. They are popular for their resiliency. Toyon, which is the native ‘California holly’ that Hollywood is named for, is a bit too finicky for irrigated and refined gardens, but can be quite colorful with berries in wild or casual landscapes.
Firethorn, cotoneaster and toyon, as well as English hawthorn, all produce similar ‘pomme’ fruits, which are actually more like tiny apples than real berries. They are so popular with the birds that they are not very messy; although the birds may be if they loiter. English hawthorn is a small deciduous tree, so yellows and defoliates as the bright red fruit ripens.
Of all the colorful berries that ripen in autumn, firethorn, Pyracantha coccinea, is the most colorful, and also the most familiar. The berries are almost always bright red, deep red or reddish orange. Cultivars with orange berries have become rare. Those with yellow berries are even more rare, and are weaker plants anyway. The berries can linger through winter, but typically get eaten by birds half way through.
Firethorn earns its name with formidable thorns. A hedge of firethorn is more impenetrable than a fence topped with barbed wire, but much more appealing with glossy evergreen foliage. The only problem is that no one wants to prune such a nasty hedge! The arching stems can get taller than ten feet, and without adequate pruning, can easily get as broad. Young plants are limber enough to be espaliered.
The fragrance of the profuse clusters of tiny white flowers that bloom in spring and summer may be objectionable to some. Shade inhibits bloom and subsequent development of berries. Feral seedlings sometimes appear, but they are wimpier, thornier, and less prolific with berries than their modern cultivar parents are.