Ornamental berries to brighten winter days

The native shrubs in our yard not only feature beautiful autumn leaves, they also produce colourful berries. Birds leave some kinds of berries alone until late winter, or even the following spring, because they aren’t very tasty. These natural ornaments are a welcome pop of colour in our dreary brown or white snowy yard.

Winterberry holly

I am baffled why Winterberry holly shrubs aren’t planted more often. Their berries turn a stunning scarlet in late summer, and are contrasted by yellow leaves in fall. Since the snow in Ottawa eventually flattens most perennials and grasses, I think shrubs are the only reliable way to add winter interest in the garden. Conifers, and shrubs with colourful berries and stems, will stick up above the snow when the rest of the garden has disappeared. I love these bright berries so much that I planted more Winterberry shrubs this year.

Winterberry’s scarlet berries are spectacular against our gray house. (November 2019)

Winterberries need some space because you must have at least two of them — a male, and a female that will produce the berries. If you have room, you can group up to five female shrubs with one male. I bought my Winterberries from Green Thumb Garden Centre in Ottawa, where they label which ones are male and female, in case you’re shopping before the berries have formed.

Although Winterberry shrubs are naturally found in wet areas, mine grow and fruit just fine in average conditions. However, if it gets too dry in the summer, the unripe berries will drop off. They fruit best in full sun, but I still get lots of berries in part shade.

For most of the growing season, Winterberry hollies are inconspicuous. Their flowers are tiny, but attracts lots of equally tiny pollinators.

Winterberry’s tiny flowers. (June 2019)

Highbush Cranberry viburnum

Highbush Cranberries produce plentiful clusters of true red berries. I planted five of them in a row as a mini-hedge in the front pollinator garden. In the spring, they have large, white, saucer-like flower heads.

Clusters of Highbush Cranberries covered in our first snow fall. (November 2019)

Despite their attractive flowers and berries, I’m not sure I would plant Highbush Cranberry shrubs again. They’re a favourite food of the introduced Viburnum Leaf Beetle, which is a problem pest here in Ottawa. I had read that this viburnum species was particularly vulnerable to attack, but I didn’t take the warnings seriously enough. The larvae and beetles eat many tiny holes, making the leaves look lacey, and eventually skeletonizing them.

Viburnum Leaf Beetle damage caused by their larvae. (May 2019)

So far, my Highbush Cranberry viburnums are only partially damaged each year, and continue to thrive. I did see Ladybugs mating and laying eggs on the leaves, so they may have controlled some of the larvae. I also saw wasps around the shrubs (before they flowered), so perhaps they were also killing larvae.

Crabapples

My non-native crabapple trees also hold their fruit for a long time. I chose varieties, ‘Rosthern’ and ‘Prairie Fire’, that produce small fruits that birds can eat. The birds and chipmunks preferred the orange-yellow ‘Rosthern’ crabapples, which soften early, and ate them all by November.

‘Prairie Fire’ crabapples in November.

Of course, crabapple trees also have pretty, fragrant flowers in the spring that are loved by all kinds of pollinators and people.

‘Prairie Fire’ Crabapple flowers in May with an unidentified bee collecting pollen.

Emergency bird food

We’re most familiar with the seed-eating birds that frequent our feeders. When natural seed sources, like conifers and flower seed heads, are gone — and if our feeders are empty — these birds will eat berries. The berries that remain in winter are birds’ least favourite ones. As the berries freeze and thaw throughout winter, they become sweeter, or at least palatable to birds. They are a critical food source in late winter and early spring when other foods are gone.

Also, not all birds are able to eat seeds because their bills aren’t suitable for cracking them or pecking at them. Instead, they eat insects — and berries when there are no insects. These birds migrate south to spend the winter where there are plenty of insects to eat.

When migrating birds return north in spring, they’re gambling that the weather will have warmed enough for their insect food to be available. This past spring (2019) was unusually cool, so few insects were active when early migrating birds arrived. They had to rely on remaining berries, as well as spring flower and leaf buds, to sustain them until the temperature rose and insects appeared.

The loss of natural habitat, and the native, berry-producing shrubs that grow there, means that birds are left with less emergency food at the end of winter and early spring. I hope that I am helping a few birds at this critical time by planting native shrubs in my yard.

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