UNITED STATES—Red berries that ripen through autumn and into winter are becoming prominent. They are too brightly colorful and profuse to hide. Those that do not attract too much attention from wildlife may linger after floral color fades. Some may last longer than the earliest fall color. Otherwise, if wildlife consumes all of the red berries, that is what they are there for.
Plants are naturally exploitative. Since they are inanimate, they exploit that which is not. Those that do not rely on wind for dispersion of their pollen and seed expect insects and animals to do it instead. Their flowers appeal to preferred pollinators, using color, texture, form, fragrance and flavor. Their fruit, which contains their seed, uses similar techniques.
Red berries mature at this time of year for two primary reasons. Plants that produce them prefer their seed to disperse during autumn or early winter. Also, they know that they can rely on birds or other wildlife to eat the red berries, and subsequently ‘disperse’ the seed within. Overwintering wildlife and migratory birds are particularly hungry as berries ripen.
Flora exploits fauna while fauna exploits flora.
Red berries are popular in home gardens for two primary reasons. Some people like the birds and squirrels who come to eat the fruit. Most people simply appreciate the red color while floral color is potentially scarce. Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict how birds will behave. They may prematurely consume berries that should provide color for winter.
Although various hollies provide delightfully glossy and densely evergreen foliage, their red berries are scarce or absent without male pollinators. (Hollies are dioecious, so their genders are distinct.) Male cultivars, which had been rare for several decades, have only recently become more available. Yet, even with pollinators, holly berries are not the best.
Firethorn (Pyracantha), toyon and a few cultivars of cotoneaster are more prolific with red berries. Toyon, or California holly, is native, and is the namesake for Hollywood. It is best in wild landscapes where it needs no pruning. Firethorn produces the most berries, but is also very thorny. Some cultivars of cotoneaster are both thornless and pleasantly prolific.
Highlight: English Hawthorn
Most red berries that provide color and attract birds through late autumn and winter grow on shrubbery. Berries of English hawthorn, Crataegus laevigata, grow on trees. They are not big trees, but they are distinguished. Mature trees might get no taller than 20 feet, but their furrowed trunks with weathered bark resemble those of older and statelier trees.
Trusses of small white flowers that bloom in spring are comparable to those of pear. Like pear bloom, they emit a potentially objectionable musky fragrance. Modern cultivars that bloom with pink, double pink or double red flowers are less fragrant. English hawthorn is uncommon locally. The few cultivars that produce yellow or orange berries might be rare.
The deciduous leaves of English hawthorn are only about an inch or two long and wide. They are deeply lobed, with a handsomely coarse texture. Foliage can turn rusty orange or brownish yellow for autumn. Defoliation exposes any remaining berries, at least until the birds finish with them too. Thorns are unfortunately unavoidable.
Horticulturist Tony Tomeo can be contacted at tonytomeo.com.