Holiday Berries: The Rubies of Late Fall
By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor,
University of Vermont
Shrubs with red berries come in handy this time of year for use in holiday
decorations and arrangements, for feeding wildlife, and for brightening
Although the well-known American and Chinese hollies can't be grown in most
of Vermont (or Northern New England), other fine red-berried shrubs are
suitable for this and similar northern climates.
Unless noted, they are hardy to at least USDA zone 4 (-20 to -30 degrees F).
The winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a native and deciduous (loses its leaves in
winter) shrub. It is related to the evergreen hollies, only much hardier. With
its brilliant small and shiny red berries it is spotted quickly in wet areas in fall,
even at high speeds along interstates. Reaching heights of 6 to 8 feet,
winterberry grows well in sun or shade, wet or dry soil.
Like the other hollies, the sexes are on separate plants. If you want berries,
you'll need a female plant and a male plant (no berries) for pollination. Even
then you may not see many berries before the birds get to them. Over 40
species of birds eat their berries, including bluebirds, cedar waxwings, brown
thrashers, mockingbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and robins. 'Jim Dandy' is a
good male to pollinate early cultivars (cultivated varieties) such as the compact
'Nana', 'Sprite', or Maryland Beauty', to the 8-foot tall 'Stoplight' or 'Jolly Red'.
'Sprite' was a Cary award winning plant for New England. 'Southern
Gentleman' is a good male to pollinate later cultivars such as the popular
'Winter Red' and 'Sunset'. The male 'Apollo' pollinates the hybrids 'Harvest
Red' and 'Sparkleberry'.
Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is easy to grow and tolerates many soil
types. In addition to the red berries, the shiny green leaves turn
reddish-purple in fall. Birds will eat the berries, but reluctantly as they are
tart. This makes them good for jams and jellies though. 'Brilliantissima' is a
cultivar with even brighter fruit, while 'Autumn Magic' is a more compact
selection with slightly larger fruits.
Some of the shrub roses produce large red fruits, known as "hips", in late
summer and fall. Some of the showiest are the blueleaf rose (Rosa glauca),
eglantine (R. eglanteria), Moyes (R. moyesii), and the rugosa (R. rugosa). All
are hardy to at least USDA zone 4 except the Moyes rose (zone 5).
If you want a less known but attractive native shrub, try the spicebush (Lindera
benzoin). Leaves when crushed are spicy, and the red fall fruits peppery.
Berries stand out against the light yellow fall leaves, and arise from the bright
yellow flowers that appear in spring before the leaves. It is marginally hardy
to zone 4, thriving in moist soil and partly shaded woodlands.
Hawthorns (Crataegus) are small trees (15 to 25 feet tall) with attractive red fall
fruits, but most have some drawbacks-- namely lots of diseases and long,
dangerous thorns. Exceptions, and among the best choices with few thorns and
good disease resistance, include 'Crimson Cloud' English hawthorn (C.
laevigata), Princeton Sentry Washington hawthorn (C. phaenophyrum), and
'Winter King' green hawthorn (C. viridis).
Shrubs with Berries
A group of low shrubs up to 2 feet high, good for groundcovers on slopes and
rock gardens, is the cotoneasters. Some of the best red fall fruits are from the
cranberry cotoneaster (C. apiculatus) and related creeping cotoneaster (C.
adpressus), rock spray cotoneaster (C. horizontalis), and the spreading
cotoneaster (C. divaricatus). All have small, shiny green leaves and
pinkish-white flowers attractive to bees early in the season. The rock spray and
spreading cotoneasters are less hardy (zone 5).
Ground Covers with Red Berries
Even lower groundcovers with red berries are the bunchberry (Cornus
canadensis) and the bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). Both are very hardy
to USDA zone 3 (-30 to -40 degrees F). The bunchberry also has attractive red
leaves in fall, and edible fruits. This native plant needs acidic and organic
soils. The bearberry is a tough evergreen, tolerating bogs to dry sandy areas,
alkaline to acidic soils, and prefers infertile soils.
Don't confuse bearberry with barberry-- a shrub usually seen on older lists but
no longer recommended. It is listed as an invasive plant in many states as
birds spread its colorful fruits to natural areas where they germinate and end
up crowding out more desirable native plants.
Warmer Climate Berries
For gardeners in warm climates there are even more choices for red berries in
fall, including both deciduous and evergreen hollies. Heavenly bamboo
(Nandina), Japanese skimmia, and firethorn (Pyracantha) provide bright red
color in fall and winter, while the latter can provide orange and yellow berries
as well, depending on cultivar. While the heavenly bamboo and firethorn are
hardy to USDA zone 6 (average low of -10 degrees F in winter), they may
survive in protected areas in colder zone 5. Firethorn often is seen trained to a
wall, or "espaliered", where it can benefit from heat absorbed by the wall.
Skimmia on the other hand is hardy only to the warmer USDA zone 7, and its
berries can be poisonous if eaten in quantity.