This week the fall foliage colors in the lower Hudson Valley and Northern Westchester will probably be peaking. Then it will be Nassau County’s turn. But as you may have noticed, the colors out here in Eastern Suffolk are subtle to muted.For the horticulturally creative, though, there are autumn jewels that come in the form of berries. Sparkling on the tips of branches, ornamental berries are stand-ins for flowers and foliage through fall and the long winter months when all else may be dark, dull or pure white.
Berries attract birds, which peck at them and make the whole crop eventually disappear. The berries remain usually until just a few weeks before the earliest plants of the new year, such as winter aconites and witch hazels surprise us with their blooms.
When a branch with a cluster of berries is cut off and brought indoors, its cheery colors can light up the dreariest November day and add sparkle to a holiday wreath. One of the best plants for such a purpose is the thorny evergreen shrub pyracantha, also known as the firethorn. This is a favorite with birds, especially robins who may linger or arrive slightly early as they did last year. The modest flowers appear in mid-spring and the berries arrive in early fall, loading the branches like crystalline rock candy.
Perhaps the most widely grown pyracantha cultivar is lalandei, a winner of a hybrid registered more than 100 years ago. Because some nurseries grow it from seed, there are significant variations among plants bearing the same name.
Lalandei has a spreading habit. Its height is about 9 feet and the fruit is a brilliant orange or orange-red and it looks fresh for as long as five months.
One of the best yellow-fruited pyracanthas is Shawnee, a densely branched shrub that reaches about 10 feet in height.
For those who would rather not feed the birds for one reason or another, the pyracantha berry least favored by birds grows on a cultivar called Mohave. Its orange berries ripen in August and persist into mid-winter. The shrub is free-form, upright, attractive, capable of reaching a height of 12 feet and resistant to the firethorn maladies of scab and fire blight.
Another great choice for ornamental berries that are yellow, red or black is holly. Know also by its botanical name, ilex, there are about two dozen native American varieties, with still other species from Japan, China and Europe and many hundreds of varieties bred from them.
Most species perform best in semi-shade. In their wild habitat, they are virtually always found as understory plants or at the edge of the forest or in an open clearing surrounded by larger trees.
One very important thing to consider when purchasing hollies (it seems that many a nursery person forgets to mention this) is that with only a few exceptions you need both a female and a male for pollination and fruit (berry) production. It’s also necessary for them to be in flower at the same time so make sure that the sexes are different but the varieties the same.
Among the varieties of Chinese holly, the Burford holly is more compact than other plants of the species, with leaves that are markedly less prickly. Another popular cultivar, a cross between Chinese and prostrate hollies is China Girl, with a huge harvest of brilliant red berries. China Boy is the perfect male pollinator. The height is a modest 6 feet.
Another group of crosses has produced many outstanding varieties over the years and has become a worthy favorite. These are the so-called Meserve hollies that were developed on Long Island. They are valued for their blue foliage (they are also called blue hollies) and vivid red berries. Some varieties have striking purple stems. They also have the unusual characteristic of performing equally well in sun and shade, and are much more winter-hardy than one of their parents, the English holly.
One of the most popular in the series is the pair, Blue Boy and Blue Girl. The berries of both are red.
Grown primarily for its strongly fragrant and beautiful flowers, the shrub viburnum also yields fleshy berries that are, depending on the species, either blue, black, yellow, orange or red and are much favored by birds. Although viburnums are prolific bloomers, their berry production varies from year to year, being affected by wind and the absence of rain during the pollination season.
Viburnum is available in more than 40 species. It needs moist soil and full sun or semi-shade. A vigorous grower, it should be pruned back.
Perhaps the most widespread species is the Korean spice viburnum, viburnum carlesii, which has a sweet fragrance and blue-black fruit. Equally popular is the hybrid viburnum utile, or Burkwood, which is possibly the most fragrant of all.
Some plants people consider viburnum sieboldii as the best looking plant of the species. Often attaining a height of 30 feet, it is more a tree than a shrub.
The fruits are red at first, then turn black. The added attraction is that the fruit stalks stay red through much of the winter.
It is with some trepidation that I include the vine celastrus in this discussion.
Better known as bittersweet, there is the American scandens type, which is not invasive, and the Oriental orbiculatus type, which as you may already know, is a real serious problem. A very vigorous grower and somewhat rampant in the wild and wherever you don’t want it, nonetheless, the berries are spectacular and an important source of food for birds in the winter.
The vine may grow as long as 30 feet and it may also choke and strangle anything that is in its path, but when you see the florists and arrangers coming out from the city in their cars and vans to harvest it from the side of Montauk and Sunrise highways in November, you know it’s a hot item.
Bittersweet is used extensively in Christmas decorations as the berries tend to remain well attached to the vine, which can then be woven into shapes and forms. Each of its numerous small fruits is enclosed in a brownish capsule that splits sometime in the fall revealing a light orange or scarlet berry. As the fruit ripens, the leaves turn a striking yellow and then fall off.
Fruiting usually requires a male and female plant, but in rare cases both sexes can be found on the same plant. If you want bittersweet in your landscape, then the American type is the way to go.
For drier locations, the porcelainberry vine, ampelopsis brevipedunculata, is a handsome alternative. The berries, about a quarter of an inch in diameter, range in color from white to yellow, to pastel shades of green, lilac and amethyst purple, to turquoise and sky blue. All colors of the berry are often found growing on the same plant at the same time while the plant is still in full foliage. But again this is can be an invasive plant if not controlled from the beginning.
Keep growing, but carefully and sensibly.