Shrubs producing vibrant berries the answer for drab winter gardens

Shrubs producing a feast of vibrant berries could be the answer for drab winter gardens, says Hannah Stephenson.            

As autumn leaves fall and the days continue to get shorter, many gardens are plunged into gloom. One saving grace is berries — from reds and oranges to blacks — they brighten up the often colour-free winter garden, and provide vital food for birds. Many of them stand bold against evergreen leaves, providing an impressive display of contrast.

Rosehips last through winter and berries, or hips, are a must for anyone who wants colour in their garden in the coldest months. And the first place to look is the rose family, some of which produce wonderful hips such as Rosa ‘Scharlachglut’ and Rosa x jacksonii ‘Max Graf’, which both produce a profusion of red hips.

Bright orange and red hues also come from Rosa moyesii, while darker hips, ranging from a deep chocolate colour to black, come from the burnet roses, Rosa pimpinellifolia.

When you are buying roses, do remember that not all of them produce hips, so you need to ask at your garden centre.

Keep it low-maintenance — other common berry-producers include the easy-to-grow, low-maintenance cotoneaster which provides a wealth of colour in winter. Its nutritious berries are feasted on by blackbirds, waxwings and thrushes.

Big-berried varieties include C microphyllus — the berries are as big as the leaves and look even better if the frost clings to them, while C lacteus’s red berries will endure the harshest winter and C Rothschildianus produces bright yellow berries.

A slightly harsher but no less colourful addition to the winter garden is the pyracantha. And if you’re security-conscious, you might plant a few of these sharp-spiked plants in vulnerable spots to deter intruders.

However, it’s all about the berries, which will provide a wonderful show of colour. Try ‘Orange Glow’ for a splash of cheer against a drab backdrop, or ‘Golden Dome’ if you prefer yellow berries.

Check plant gender for berry success — although holly berries are often ripe by autumn, birds such as song thrushes, blackbirds and more, don’t usually feed on them until late winter.

Many gardeners complain that their shrubs do not produce berries, and this is likely to be a problem of gender rather than any disease or weakness in the plant.

Most varieties of holly, for instance, carry the male and female flowers on separate plants, so one of each is required for fertilisation to take place.

To pollinate, the female has to have a male nearby. Many of the variegated cultivars are male and will never bear berries — and some of the names are misleading, such as ‘Golden Queen’, which is a male, while ‘Golden King’ and ‘Indian Chief’ are both female.

But there are varieties that are self-fertile, with male and female flowers, where one plant is therefore capable of producing berries. These include Ilex aquifolium ‘J C van Tol’, which produces bright red berries, and ‘Pyramidalis’ which is similar but with pale green leaves.

Another wonderful shrub producing berries in autumn and winter is Skimmia japonica, but it also needs male and female plants to produce its vibrant red berries, apart from the hermaphrodite S japonica, subspecies reevesiana, which has male and female parts. For a fabulous display of purple fruits, you need to grow a male variety near a female variety like Gaultheria mucronata ‘Stag River’.

Others which require a male to pollinate the fruit-bearing female include sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides), Aucuba japonica and Viburnum davidii, while trees and shrubs that bear ornamental fruit without needing two plants include Arbutus unedo, crataegus, malus, sorbus, pyracantha, cotoneaster, euonymus and berberis.

Darker, more dramatic colours can be obtained from the berries of the berberis. Try B darwinii — it produces masses of blue-black fruits and is particularly suited to a light spot in the garden.

Other winter wonders — for their delicious scents and their flowers as well as their berries, are viburnums. V tinus has deep blue berries which contrast effectively with its evergreen leaves, while V opulus Xanthocarpum provides us with big bunches of yellow berries and makes a good hedging plant, and provides food for birds throughout winter.

Many viburnums do grow to quite a size, but you can get more compact versions which will give good shows of red berries, such as the slow-growing V opulus Compactum.

Winter doesn’t have to be so drab after all.


Kim Sheehan is an opera singer from Crosshaven, Co Cork, and is this year’s recipient of the Jane Anne Rothwell Award from Cork Midsummer Festival.A Question of Taste: Cork opera singer, Kim Sheehan

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