Long after the showy leaves associated with autumn have faded or fallen, plants with colorful berries continue to brighten the countryside. Red and red-orange berries are favorites for enlivening the fall landscape as well as the ensuing holiday season. In many cases, they further enhance the garden by attracting colorful birds who use the berries as food.
October is a good month to watch for the development of colorful fruit in the natural landscape as well as in home landscapes. Doing so may provide gardeners with some ideas for adding a little color to their own fall and winter landscape in future years.
Two long-time favorite plants for adding color from berries are deciduous hollies that drop their leaves in the fall while retaining their colorful red berries. They include possum haw (Ilex decidua) and winterberry, (Ilex verticillata). Although both are native species, possum haw, which sometimes is referred to as deciduous holly, is not as hardy as winterberry. Possum haw is dependable as a landscape plant from mid-Missouri southward, while winterberry can be grown throughout the state.
Possum haw is grown as a large shrub or small tree that may achieve a mature height of 15 to 20 feet. Plants of this species are mostly dioecious (separate male and female plants), but some plants have perfect flowers (possessing both stamens and pistils). The whitish flowers of possum haw are relatively inconspicuous. Pollinated female flowers give way to orange-red berries which ripen in September and persist throughout the winter until mid-March when new growth begins. Birds, deer, and a variety of small mammals (including opossums as the common name suggests) are attracted to the berries.
In contrast, winterberry is a medium to large shrub that grows to about eight feet in height. Like possum haw, winterberry is a dioecious species having separate male and female plants. Female flowers, if properly pollinated, give way to a crop of one-fourth inch diameter bright red berries in late summer to fall. Berries are quite showy and will persist throughout the winter (hence the common name) and often into early spring. Berries provide considerable impact and interest to the winter landscape.
Both possum haw and winterberry are very tolerant of wet locations but can be grown in a wide range of sites. Like all hollies, they require an acidic soil to thrive and develop yellow, chlorotic leaves in soil with a high pH. Birds are very fond of their berries and may clean the plants early in the fall before the holidays arrive.
For those who favor evergreen plants, the group of hollies known as the blue or Meserve hollies (Ilex x meserveae) have good winter hardiness and produce attractive red berries as well. As is the case of the two previously described hollies, the blue hollies are dioecious and need both male and female plants to produce red berries. Fortunately, the blue hollies are named to distinguish male from female plants. For example, 'Blue Boy' is a male cultivar whereas 'Blue Girl' and 'Blue Princess' are female cultivars. Evergreen hollies are best suited for locations protected from cold winter winds.
Among small trees for the landscape, some flowering crabapples and hawthorns can provide winter color because of their berry-like fruit. 'Winter King' hawthorn (Crataegus viridis 'Winter King') has one of the longest periods of colorful fruit. The latter begin to color in October and maintain good color in spite of very cold weather until February or March, or until birds eat them. Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) also produces attractive fruit, but color is lost when severe cold arrives. Unfortunately, the hawthorns are susceptible to cedar-hawthorn rust which causes discoloring and yellow to nearly black spots on the leaves, fruit, petioles, or new twigs.
There are a number of flowering crabapples (Malus spp.) that provide landscape color from red fruit into the early part of winter. A few favorites include 'Sargent,' 'Zumi,' 'Adams,' 'Red Jewel,' and 'White Angel.' There are many other cultivars available with red as well as yellow fruits, for those who like diversity. Birds also like to eat crabapples.
Additionally, the viburnams are a group of large shrubs with colorful berries that are excellent for landscapes with plenty of space. While many bear bluish-black berries, there are a few that have bright red berries in the fall. The American cranberry bush viburnam (Viburnum opulus var. americanum), is one of the best. It features white lacecap flowers in spring in flat-topped 3" wide cymes of tiny fertile florets surrounded by larger sterile florets. Drooping clusters of cranberry-like red berries follow in the fall. However, the ornamental value of its berries is somewhat short-lived since they are quickly eaten by birds, especially when other sources of food are scarce.
A less common plant with berries for landscape use is spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a shrub in the laurel plant family. Spicebush's common name is derived from the fact its leaves, along with its stems, emit a spicy, citrus-like smell when crushed. A diecious plant, it needs very moist conditions in order to thrive. Fragrant female flowers are followed by berry-like red drupes in the fall that are very attractive to birds. Spicebush is a native plant found in low land or moist woodlands along streams or seepage areas. Its leaves are a favorite food of the larvae of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly.
Finally, a discussion of plants with red berries would not be complete with the mention of American bittersweet (Celastris scandens). A native woody vine that clings to objects by twining, bittersweet is somewhat controversial because of its very aggressive growth habit. Vines may be grown on structures or allowed to ramble along the ground. It is generally best to avoid allowing vines to grow up small trees or through shrubs because their rapid growth rate can girdle trunks and branches causing damage and sometimes total loss of the tree or shrub.
Like other species mentioned in this article, bittersweet is dioecious. Unfortunately, there is no way to distinguish male plants from female plants until they are old enough to flower and set fruit. When fertilized, greenish white to yellow female flowers give way in summer to spherical orange-yellow fruits. Fruits split open in fall to reveal scarlet fleshy berry-like seeds botanically known as arils. Although toxic to humans, fruits are highly prized as a food source by many species of birds.
In contrast, oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is considered an invasive species by many states and should be avoided. Although similar in appearance to American bittersweet, oriental bittersweet has smaller fruit that are located in small clusters in the leaf axils along the length of the stem. Fruit capsules are yellow orange in color. Fortunately, most reputable nurseries no longer offer oriental bittersweet for sale. For additional information about bittersweet, please visit https://ipm.missouri.edu/MEG/2017/11/bittersweet/.