The Jewels of Winter
by Niki Jabbour
by Niki Jabbour


Niki Jabbour is an Ornamental Horticulturist and a writer from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Fertilized by sea breezes, her gardens are comprised of a colourful mixture of perennials, annuals, herbs and flowering shrubs, with a few patches of clover and chickweed thrown in for good measure.

A member of the Garden Writers Association Niki is also the weekly gardening columnist for the Halifax Daily News and the Chester Clipper.

January 24, 2010

There is much beauty in the winter garden. With the absence of flowers and foliage many other features of the garden are now plainly visible, including the vibrant colours of berries that adorn the branches of hardy shrubs.

Small trees and shrubs that retain their fruits throughout the winter not only extend our enjoyment of the garden, but also become giant birdfeeders, offering a feast for our feathered friends when many other food sources are unavailable.

Some of the more popular fruiting tree and shrubs include cultivars of holly, hawthorn and viburnum, yet there are many more wonderful plants that bear berries in a variety of colours and sizes.

Although most of us traditionally think of holly as an evergreen shrub with green spiny leaves and red berry clusters, there are actually both deciduous and evergreen types of holly, some of which even produce berries in colours other than red. Inkberry, a broad-leaved evergreen holly is unique with its tiny midnight black berries and glossy, unspined leaves. Several varieties such as ‘Compacta’, a dwarf female and ‘Nigra’, a variety with purple-tinged foliage are available at local nurseries.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a deciduous holly, is a spectacular specimen that shines in late autumn and early winter with its heavy crop of vibrant red berries. This hardy multi-stemmed shrub is frequently found in damp, acidic areas such as alongside lakes, bogs and ditches, and often reaches a height of up to ten feet.

If you’re looking for something unusual, try Beauty Berry (Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’), a medium-sized shrub with stunning purple berries. This deciduous plant, which is hardy to zone 6, bears small pink flowers in mid-summer, which eventually yield generous clusters of violet-purple berries in autumn. Although pretty year-round with its silvery green leaves, it is in winter that Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) is truly eye-catching with its persistent egg-shaped orange berries. It is also a hardy and salt tolerant shrub, making it an ideal plant for an informal seaside garden or hedge.

Preferring a sunny and well-drained site, Sea buckthorn will grow from ten to twenty feet tall in gardens as cold as zone 4. For a garden of limited space, ‘Sprite’ offers extreme compaction by growing just two feet tall. A male, such as the cultivar ‘Pollmix’ is needed for berry production.

Valued for its vibrant orange berries, Firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) is a semi-evergreen shrub with lustrous green leaves and branches covered in prickly thorns. During the early summer it produces clusters of fragrant small white flowers, which are followed in autumn by the brilliant berries. Growing about eight feet tall, Firethorn makes an excellent hedge or specimen plant, and likes a sunny spot in the garden.

The American Cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum) is an extremely hardy plant that grows about ten feet tall and offers a visual treat in the winter with its showy red berries. A deciduous shrub, the American Cranberrybush is truly a four-season plant with early summer flowers, reddish-purple fall foliage and its striking winter berries.

Hardy to zone three, the Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a medium-sized shrub that does well in a variety of conditions from wet to dry. It bears leathery green leaves in summer, which turn a showy orange, red and purple in the autumn. Of course the true reason I mention this plant is for the berries which follow the early summer flowers.

The deeply coloured fruits of the Black Chokeberry grow up to one-centimeter in diameter in an intense shade of purple-black. They are remarkably persistent and last well into winter, providing a late-season meal for hungry birds. Plant this shrub in a natural area in generous-sized groups for best effect.

In my backyard there is a long, steep dry slope. I have grand aspirations for this awkward space including the installation of stone terraces, yet until I have the time, money and energy for such a massive project, I am thankful for Cotoneaster horizontalis.

This low-growing, semi-evergreen shrub grows up to eight feet wide, yet stays around one foot tall. Its long fishbone-style branches are covered with small deep green leaves and smothered with delicate soft pink blooms each summer. The flowers are followed by extremely long-lasting red berries that persist all winter long, adding a welcome splash of colour to my otherwise drab slope.

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