After the glories of summer flowers, we can still revel in these bright jewels of late autumn and winter. This we week we choose our favourite 10 berries but as usual there is disagreement on wild versus cultivated varieties, the speed with which they’re consumed by birds, and even what constitutes a berry in the first place.
- Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is usually grown for its spectacular red and orange autumn leaves, but set its deep plum berries amongst them, and the effect is sensational! Talking about this popular climber, we usually see it clamped to the side of buildings, but have you even seen it swaying its stems out of the top of a tall dark conifer? Even better if it’s in evening sunshine in October or November – I just wish I’d had a camera with me – doh.
2. Poor old Cotoneaster horizontalis gets plonked into municipal bedding schemes, car parks, over cess pit covers (or maybe that’s just at our family home eh, sisters?), largely chosen for its ability to creep slowly over the ground and disguise depressing numbers of discarded drinks cans and takeaway boxes. (Pyracantha often falls into the same bracket unless you get creative with it as they did at Ordnance House on our photoshoot for Henchman ladders this autumn- our feature pic this week). Cotoneaster cornubia is a much lovelier thing – a semi-evergreen shrub or small tree (it won’t reach more than 8m (25ft) max.) In autumn, the weeping branches are laden with spherical red berries amongst small leaves that are slowly russeting (is that a word? It should be). It’s a plant that ought to be better known.
3. Rosa rugosa. Wait for the howls of derision from Laura when she sees I’ve included a rose amongst my choices. Berries are a sub-division of fruits, so I shall stick to my guns and recommend that everyone grows at least a couple of rugosa roses, not just for their healthy leaves and pretty flowers but also for their stupendous rose hips in autumn the size of cherry tomatoes and shinier than Movie Night in the Strictly ballroom.
4. I can’t hand over to Laura without mentioning Callicarpa. I grow C. bodinieri ‘Profusion’, and its violet purple berries are just…….. RIDICULOUS! You get more flowers and berries if you plant these shrubs in a group, and then stand back…..you’ll think you’re on a SciFi film set.
Hmmm a bit of a random collection from Elaine, and she’s winding me up as she knows that her rose hips are just that, hips (not berries 😤) – a sub-group that are particular to roses and really belong in a blog we wrote on this topic a while ago (link at the end) (Elaine: See. I told you she’d get all nerdy).
So let’s get a bit of botanical backbone to the discussion. All berries are a plant’s way of getting its seeds dispersed, mainly by birds such as blackbirds, pigeons, thrushes, fieldfares and redwings. They eat the flesh whilst the seeds pass through and are deposited in new locations. In the same way that flowers are colourful and scented to attract pollinators, so berries need to be bright and tasty to attract avian vectors.
It’s true there are some lovely garden species and cultivars but if you include some of our native species in a hedge or a corner you won’t be disappointed. If I had to pick my favourite three natives they would be:
5. Spindle Euonymus europaeus. Personally I would take the wild native version of Euonymus over any of its garden species or cultivars
6. Guelder rose Viburnam opulus. Another native shrub that would be hard to better by any garden alternative.
7. Rowans (Sorbus) are another genus that has stunning berries on its British native species Sorbus aucuparia, but in this case I think there are some cultivars and non-native garden species that are just as desirable. I particularly like the ones with white/mother of pearl berries such as Sorbus cashmeriana, and I think Caroline has become slightly besotted with a variety that grows in her village called S. ‘Pink Pagoda’ (which actually looks very pretty despite its frightful name) – she’s bought one purporting to be this off EBay …time will tell.
8. Native ivy, Hedera helix. Our wild ivy exists in two forms, juvenile and mature (sometimes referred to as its arborescent stage). When young it puts its energy into climbing, but at maturity it bushes out and produces flowers in late winter and berries in late autumn which are a wonderful workmanlike leaden black and adored by pigeons. I think you can take a short cut and buy ivy plants that are already at the arborescent stage called ‘tree ivy’ which just remain as shrubs.
There are other wild berries that I also love but have run out of room to write about so I’ve included them in a short video I’ve made. Link at the end.
All very lovely but here’s the thing – you have to be quick off the mark to enjoy your autumn berries. By that I mean I would endorse my sisters’ gushing praise for pyracantha and cotoneaster berries (and indeed rave about my much coveted chokeberries), but our feathered friends have – bish, bosh, bash – troughed the lot. This is the trouble with gardening for wildlife – it’s quite annoying when it works.
However, even the most gluttonous blackbird appears to baulk at:
9. Gaultheria mucronata ‘Bell’s Seedling’. This is a belter for me being acid-loving (most of Scotland tends to have acidic soil) and having rather lovely maroon berries against glossy dark green leaves. Make sure you get this self-fertile ‘Bell’s Seedling’ variety though, otherwise you must have a boy and a girl to produce the berries…you know how it works 🤭
10. Hippophae rhamnoides ‘Leikora’ (sea buckthorn) If you can grow this, you really should. It likes poor soil, a salty wind and, being deciduous, looks a little ropey in winter but boy oh boy, those berries in autumn! Added to which they’re vitamin-rich superfoods evidenced by the size of the local crows, so quickly harvest a few for yourself before ‘gardening for wildlife’ serves you with another own goal!
With so many to choose from we’ve probably left out your favourite Autumn berries so we’d love to hear what they are!
Here is the link to our earlier article about rose hips.
NB Louise’s Great Plant this month is another fruit that graces the Autumn garden but one which has a family history and culinary benefits – click on the box below to find out what it is.
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