Winter berries are a triple threat in the garden. While they don’t act, sing or dance, they still perform triple duty, providing bright spots of color in otherwise dormant gardens, serving up sustenance to birds, and supplying long-lasting decorations for holiday arrangements.
Most berry-bearing plants bear berries in vivid shades of red and orange. Others offer berries in more subtle shades of blue and white. As a bonus, many are tough, water-conserving plants that require little care any time of year.
Scarlet and orange berries are the brightest stars in the winter garden. On the Central Coast, the big three are bearberry (Cotoneaster), firethorn (Pyracantha) and toyon or Christmas berry (Heteromeles arbutifolia). All are robust, evergreen shrubs that bear clean, glossy leaves and branches laden with red or orange fruit. Clip a few branches of any of these, and you’ll have the basics of a traditional red and green bouquet.
At first glance, bearberry and firethorn look much the same, with tightly packed clusters of red and orange berries bursting from small, close-growing narrow leaves.
But bearberry leaves are not quite as shiny. And the branches of most varieties of firethorn are covered in thorns, making them good barrier plants along property lines or beneath windows.
Both bearberry and firethorn have been hybridized many times over, and range from creeping ground covers to substantial shrubs that will form dense, evergreen hedges. Certain varieties can be espaliered on a trellis, fence, wall or chimney.
Regardless of the sort, they all open with a profusion of tiny white flowers in late spring and summer, followed by those vibrant berries in fall. The berries persist through winter, provided birds don’t pick them clean sooner.
The sprays of deep red berries that appear at the tips of the branches of our native toyon resemble those of both bearberry and firethorn.
But toyon’s leaves are broader and have a distinctive, serrated edge. Toyon also grows larger, easily reaching 15 feet tall and wide in seven years. It’s not as dense, either, with its interior scaffolding of branches providing shelter for birds and other wildlife.
Toyon is widely adaptable, growing just as well along roadways as it does in manicured gardens. You can leave it as a rounded bush, or train it into a single-trunk or low-branching tree.
English Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is the go-to Christmas berry in many parts of the country. But it is far better suited to colder climates than ours.
On the Central Coast, Wilson holly (Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Wilsonii’) and Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta) are better bets. Both are prickly, slow-growing, dense evergreen shrubs that insist on regular irrigation and excellent drainage.
Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) bears a sprinkling of red berries in the fall. Meanwhile, its graceful, elongated leaves turn bronzy pink and red with colder temperatures.
While a single plant will bear a few berries, a group of plants will produce far more. The straight species is a tall, narrow shrub that fits well into tight spaces with filtered shade. Some of the smaller hybrids have been bred for size and foliage color, and may produce only a handful of fruit.
The red berries of pepper trees — both California pepper tree (Schinus molle) and Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthefolius) — are more fragile than most.
But both are fragrant, and are naturals in herb wreaths. California pepper tree bears dangling, willow-like leaves and has a sprawling habit; Brazilian pepper bears stiff, broad, oval leaves and has a silhouette like a globe on a stout stick.
For berries other than red or orange, look to the dusty light blues and dark blues of our many native barberries (now Berberis species, formerly Mahonia species). Their clean, green leaves resemble oak leaves. Their springtime flowers trend toward bright yellow. They bear grape-like clusters of dull blue and navy flowers in fall. Birds love them.
Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) is among the most widespread, and grows 4 to 5 feet tall and wide. Golden Abundance (Berberis ‘Golden Abundance’) produces abundant yellow-gold flowers in spring and reaches 6 to 10 feet tall and wide. Creeping barberry (Berberis repens) is a slow grower and a nice ground cover with rounded leaves. It reaches only 2 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide.
All barberries appreciate some shade. While they are natives, they like regular summer irrigation, too. Their stiff, evergreen leaves turn reddish bronze in winter. Watch out when you prune them: their leaf edges can be spiny and sharp. They make good barrier plants as well.
Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis indica) bears dark blue and deep purple fruit in fall.
The berries are a bit shy, tending to skim the surface of the leathery, evergreen foliage or lie buried beneath.
Shrubs planted in full sun produce the most spring and summer flowers, which results in the most bountiful berries.
Plump, snow-white berries appear on our native snowberry (Symphoricarpos) in late summer and persist through fall and winter, even after the shrubs have shed their leaves.
Indeed, snowberry is deciduous, forming a thicket of dark, upright stems bearing those white berries at their tips.
Common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) grows 5 feet tall in shaded woodlands, while creeping snowberry (Symphoricarpos mollis) reaches only 2 feet tall as it creeps through woodlands and chaparral.
In the garden, snowberry prefers cool sun or light shade and occasional irrigation, and doesn’t mind heavy clay soil. Chumash Indians gathered its flexible branches to weave into baskets long ago.
Avoid spraying insecticides, pesticides or other chemicals on any berry plants that you plan to harvest for holiday arrangements.
Once indoors, beware that some berries — including holly — can be toxic. Keep your berries out of reach of young children who may find the eye-catching orbs irresistible.
Also, while glossy berries and leaves are radiant in the glow of candlelight, keep your decorations out of range of any flames or hot, dripping wax.
To help your berries stay fresh longer, slit or mash the ends of their branches before you poke them into moist floral foam or submerge them in a vase of water.
Seeds of Wisdom
Scarlet berries are a signature of the holidays. They are also an important source of food for winter birds, including cedar waxwings, scrub jays, robins and mockingbirds. Keep binoculars and a bird book handy to identify the various species that fly in to feast on your winter berries.
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