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Winter Berries
by Joshua Siskin
January 10, 2010

The approach of winter stimulates an interest in botanical appendages that would merit little attention in warmer seasons. At this time of year, just because most plants have ceased flowering does not mean there is nothing to look at in the garden, especially when it comes to the collection of ornamental berries currently on display.
Two of the most compelling winter plants are Pyracantha and Cotoneaster. Pyracantha is commonly known as firethorn (pyr = fire; acantha = thorn) on account of its fiery red or orange fruit and thorny demeanor. The smallish oval leaves of pyracantha are a deep emerald green. Pyracantha is a plant that can be trained up a trellis or against a sunny wall. Tie shoots to baling wire strung horizontally across the wall, then go up six inches -- string another wire -- and tie more shoots to this next wire, continuing up the wall at six inch intervals. Pyracantha coccinea can be trained up a twenty foot wall in such a manner, creating a stunning cordon tapestry of green leaves and red berries. Alternatively, pyracantha can be shaped into a multi-tiered topiary of boxes or globes, albeit at the expense of berry production.
Left to grow unchecked, pyracantha is a robust shrub that makes a wonderful living fence. Its thorns are legendary and will compete with barbed wire in securing an area. Left unpruned, its branches shoot up at forty-five degree angles to heights of eight or ten feet, imparting a sense of drama and excitement that no other shrub can create.
Cotoneaster (kuh-TOE-nee-as-ter) is sometimes referred to as red clusterberry due to its large and long-lasting pendulous clusters of berries that cover the plant in fall and winter. It is highly drought tolerant. Cotoneaster species range from fifteen foot tall shrubs (Cotoneaster lacteus) with romantic arching branches to mat-like ground covers. Cotoneaster dammeri is an excellent selection for balcony planters since its shoots will spill over and grow straight down a wall.
One of the most gratifying winter shrubs is the Rugosa rose. It boasts one-inch, spherical red hips (fruits) throughout the colder months. Much work has been done with the Rugosa rose in recent years. New flower colors have appeared to complement the fragrant reddish-purple blooms long associated with the species. The leaves of the rugosa rose are special, having a leathery texture completely out of character with the flimsy foliage for which more common garden roses are known.
Nandina domestica, or heavenly bamboo, is yet another shrub resplendent with red berries in winter. Nandina is a plant for all soils and sun exposures, but it will develop powdery mildew leaf fungus when it is irrigated excessively with sprinklers and air circulation around its foliage is impeded. Nandina is a plant for all four seasons. In spring and summer it shows white flowers. In fall, its leaves turn color as its red fruit ripens. Throughout the year, its lacy foliage is evocative of a Japanese garden (in fact, the name Nandina is derived from "nanden," which is how it is called in Japan), and its growth habit and appearance suggestive of bamboo, although it has no botanical kinship with true bamboo.
All of the berries/fruits mentioned above are edible, if rather bland. The recommended mode of consumption is to make them into jellies or jams.
If you want some white berries to provide contrast with the red, consider planting a snowberry (Symphoricarpos). Several snowberry species, among them California natives, will grow in our area. Most prefer to be planted in a somewhat shady location.

Joshua is the owner of a gardening company and write articles on horticultural subjects.

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