Wild Green Yonder – The berries of winter

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Winterberries

Article by Brian O’Neil, NBG Director of Horticulture

January 16, 2016

Link to Virginian Pilot Story

“To me, the garden is a doorway to other worlds … one of them, of course, is the world of birds. The garden is their dinner table, bursting with bugs and worms and succulent berries.”

Anne Raver, a longtime garden writer for The New York Times, had the right idea when she extoled the virtues of berries to feed our feathered friends. Berries’ benefit to birds notwithstanding, their bright colors against evergreen foliage or against gray skies also feed our souls during a time when color in the garden is appreciated.

Native birds obtain much needed nourishment from the plants and trees with which they evolved over millennia. Luckily for us humans, the winter berries of native hollies do double duty, providing sustenance for birds and other wildlife while gracing our gardens with attractive form, foliage and fruit.

One of the more common native hollies is the American Holly (Ilex opaca). At Norfolk Botanical Garden we have an entire garden devoted to members of the holly clan, both native and exotic, not the least among them being mature American hollies with berries of red or yellow depending on the cultivar. We often see flocks of robins and cedar waxwings dining among these stately trees.

Another evergreen native holly is the Yaupon, which reaches the northern limit of its southern range along our coastline. Translucent berries of red or orange and caffeine-laced spineless leaves, which are finding their way into trendy teas, are borne on attractive medium-sized trees of a size that fits into most residential gardens.

Most folks think evergreen foliage when thinking of hollies. Not so with our native Winterberry, whose large red berries adorn leafless winter stems of charcoal gray. This large shrub is great for wet places in the landscape.

Native hollies are also available in shrub form. The evergreen inkberry holly bears black fruits among the clean, green leaves. I have seen large native stands of these in both the Great Dismal Swamp and in the Blackwater Ecological Preserve in Zuni. Inkberry would be a great substitute for boxwoods, especially where soil or moisture conditions don’t suit the latter, as inkberry tolerates wet clay soils well.

Down at ground level in the shade of taller hollies there are at least a few berrying plants that act as shoes and socks among the woody stems of their overlords. The most diminutive among these is the Asian Coralberry (Ardisia japonica), only inches high and bearing small red berries at this time of the year. The cultivar “Chirimen” is a crinkled leaved carpeter of shady places in Southern gardens. Other less cold hardy cultivars may have larger foliage with varying amounts of white or yellow variegation.

Next in size are Nippon lilies (Rohdea japonica), also called sacred lilies, which are natives of eastern Asian forests. Their evergreen straplike leaves resemble a fanciful hybrid of deciduous hostas and evergreen cast iron plants. Japanese collectors have long coveted rare variegated or crested leaved forms, but even the plainest common form makes a stalwart drought-tolerant understory plant in the darkest shade. Its winter clusters of big, fat red berries are borne near the base of the fans of foliage.

Another shade-tolerant lower shrub popular among flower arrangers is Poet’s Laurel (Danae racemosa). This denizen of bright shade makes a 3-foot tall mound of arching, ferny evergreen stems highlighted by scarlet berries in fall and winter. The cut stems are used as a long lasting foliage filler in flower arrangements. Poet’s laurel, while long-lived, is slow growing and apt to be a bit pricey at the garden center. Beg a division from your gardening friends .

Unfortunately, not all berrying plants are desirable either as supportive fare for birds or as ornamentals for our gardens. Two evergreen species of oriental privet were used extensively as hedge plants in earlier times but, because of their profuse blue-black berry clusters they trick our feathered friends by promising sustenance but passing quickly through their digestive systems to seed about indiscriminately. TheChinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense) is the most prolific and problematic of the two invasive exotics, forming large shrubs with small evergreen leaves and has become an unfortunate common component in our southeastern woodlands and forgotten garden corners. The other, larger exotic invasive is Chinese Waxleaf Privet (Ligustrum lucidum). Both species bear the aforementioned large clusters of dark berries which provide little nutritional benefit to native birds. Both should be removed and replaced with native shrubs or trees.

You’ll be doing the environment, our native birds, and your landscape a big favor.