Winter can be a tough season for wildlife to find food. It can also be depressing for gardeners when they stare at a gray and brown and sometimes white landscape for months. One solution is to plant evergreens. Additionally, there are a handful of shrubs, vines and trees that produce colorful berries in Autumn that persist well into winter. The fruits provide an important source of food for wildlife and color to perk up the winter view.
Mountain Ash is a native tree of Eastern North America that grows from Canada to Georgia. It produces small white flowers in spring followed by dense clusters of small red berries in August that persist well into winter. Usually growing to a maximum height of 40 feet, Mountain Ash is a favorite of birds year round and provides an important source of nutrients for them in winter when little else is available.
Beautyberry is a deciduous shrub that produces iridescent purple berries in autumn. The beautiful berries will last well into winter or until wildlife consumes them. In North America, the native plant choice is American Beautyberry. The Asian variety looks almost identical, but its berries grow on stems and not in the leaf axils as they do on the American. The shrubs’ foliage is deep green all year and only mildly interesting. But in Autumn the show begins when the green berries show their color and wildlife, especially birds, devour them.
Crabapples (aka Crab Apples)
Crabapples are a remarkably versatile species of tree. Their spring-blooming, lightly fragrant flowers appear in a variety of colors from white, light pink, rose-pink, red and carmine. Crab apple foliage varies from light green to purple. Crab apples bear red, orange, maroon or yellow fruit at different times depending on the variety. Choose a native variety for your region that holds its fruit through winter because it’s an important winter food source for some species of birds. According to Penn State Extension, “birds prefer the smaller-fruited varieties, and will eat some varieties in winter and save the sour ones for early spring when other food sources are scarce. Some of the birds that depend on crabapples include robins, cardinals, woodpeckers, bluebirds, cedar waxwings, towhees, mockingbirds and tufted titmice.”
What would the winter landscape be without its most famous plant, Holly? The most prolific producer of red berries in the holly family happens to be Native to North America: Winterberry Holly. It’s not evergreen like the hollies you may be familiar with: the leaves drop, but it produces droves of berries that wildlife devour. If you want a classic holly with deep-green evergreen foliage and bright red berries (or orange, yellow or black), there are more than 780 species to choose from that range from 6 inches to tall to over 70 feet(!). Choose an appropriate variety for your region (they can be grown USDA regions 3-11, every state of the US), and site conditions, and bear in mind that you’ll have to plant 1 male plant for 1-10 female plants.
American Bittersweet is a climbing, twining vine that produces bright red berries in Autumn that may last into winter. As with Holly, a male and female must be planted near each other to produce fruit. Not to be confused with the Asian variety, Oriental Bittersweet, which is considered invasive.
There are more than 380 varieties of Hawthorns, from dense shrubs to trees, and usually with thorns. “Winter King”, aka Green Hawthorn, is an excellent choice for a landscape tree. It grows 25-35 feet, has thornless varieties, produces beautiful blooms in spring, with red fruits that ripen in September and persist into winter.
This hardy deciduous shrub is much easier to manage than its cousin that produces red berries. Black Chokeberry fruit starts to develop in mid to late summer and within 2 weeks the branches droop with heavy clusters of fruit. However, birds and most wildlife tend to avoid them, so they’re strictly for visual interest.
Sources: North Carolina State Extension, Celastrus scandens; Penn State Extension, There’s A Flowering Crapapple for that!; Piedmont Master Gardeners, Winterberry Holly; Missouri Botanical Garden, crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’; Chicago Botanic Garden, Black Chokeberry.