The Role of Berries and Seeds in the Garden and Landscape
By Lorraine Spooner
Mention native and ornamental trees with berries, and our minds are immediately transported to the familiar red berry of Ilex aquifolium and its mythological associations over centuries, not least with the festival of Christmas. But it is far too early to be considering December, when we have the bountiful season of autumn waiting to show off its abundance of fruit, which bedeck the plants in the form of berries. But do be thinking of the festive season and visit our marvellous Retail showroom, packed full of tempting and unusual gift ideas to satisfy your Christmas shopping needs all under one roof!
If plants could walk, they would be free to disperse their offspring on journeys to their chosen locations, but nature increases their chance of survival by using all manner of means to ensure that seeds are transported to the most favourable environments for germination and optimum growth: for example on the wind – which carries the winged ‘helicopters’ of the maple; by water – willow and birch produce lightweight fruit that floats; by gravity – where heavy fruit drops to the ground and rolls away and by animals (including fish and reptiles). Some plants even adopt ballistic tactics, where the seeds are ejected by forceful explosive mechanisms, which is a rare sight to behold. Grazers, such as cattle and horses, mow the grass mainly for plant leaves but unintentionally, can ingest a large number of seeds that may be present growing amongst their usual fodder or in field margins, ensuring longevity of these fields of farmland. Berries and their seeds can be consumed more than once, when an animal preys on another for example, extending the distance the seeds are carried. Some berries are highly poisonous to humans and mammals, such as Taxus baccata (yew), but it is the bright red colour of the berries that is actually responsible for attracting specific woodland creatures such as badgers, which only ingest the fruit pulp, leaving the seeds to pass through their digestive systems intact to grow into new plants.
Seeds can remain viable over many miles and countless years; being dispersed at a greater distance from the parent plant increases chances of survival, as there is less competition for water, light and nutrients, thereby creating an opportunity to colonise new habitats. For example, a coconut can remain viable and travel over 3,000 miles until it lands on that distant tropical island, where it establishes its new home and no doubt, its mature offspring will be washed out to sea to undertake a similar epic journey in years to come. Similarly, seeds can remain viable in vegetation destroyed by forest fires and germinate many years later when appropriate conditions return; some are sealed in a resinous bond and require the high temperatures of a wildfire to break this seal and come out of dormancy, initiating germination. We may also unwittingly disperse seeds in our own and into others gardens by various means such as on our clothes, our shoes and even our cars, so from John O’Groats to Land’s End, that Douglas Fir cone could germinate in Cornwall!
Castaways and forest fires aside, we can look closer to home to our hedgerows where fruit-loving animals, called frugivores, are busy feasting on the available harvest of native species, such as hawthorn, hornbeam, field maple, hazel, blackthorn, crab apple, privet, dog and guelder rose (all these species are soon to be available as bare-rooted whips and some are in stock in our 8Lt. hedging plants). Many of these animals digest the fruit pulp so quickly that it does not have a chance to release its seed, thereby ensuring it remains intact wherever it is deposited to initiate the cycle of reproduction. Often these seeds are protected by a hard seed coat, which resists animal digestion; but conversely, higher germination rates become possible when the animals’ digestive tract removes physical layers or chemical compounds that would otherwise inhibit germination. Thus, beautiful hedgerows grow and spread, continuing to provide habitats for birds and mammals, on which a reciprocal relationship is essential for survival.
Some of the best Autumn and Winter berrying trees and shrubs are detailed below.
Our native Sorbus aucuparia is recognisable at this time of year for its show of bright orange berries set against ferny foliage, which will shortly take on its display of autumn hues, but there are many other species and cultivars worth considering:-
- Sorbus hupehensis ‘Pink Pagoda’and Sorbus vilmorinii – both have vivid pink berries which slowly change to white by mid-winter;
- Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ and Sorbus aucuparia ‘Autumn Spire’ both popular cultivars with yellow berries, which become more yellow/orange as they mature; the latter has an upright habit perfect for smaller gardens;
- Sorbus ‘Chinese Lace’ – named for its deeply cut foliage, this beautiful tree produces deep red berries in abundance.
Crab apples have been featured in recent newsletters, but they deserve another mention here, for the range of fruit in shades of yellow, orange and varying shades of red that can provide colour and interest right through the winter. Some of the purple leaved cultivars retain their delightful deep red ‘mini’ crabs long after the foliage has fallen – nature’s natural Christmas decorations (oops sorry, too early for Christmas).
- One of the best of these is Malus toringo ‘Scarlett’, which for me earns the accolade ‘a tree for all seasons’, with its stunning deep pink blossom in April providing a contrasting spectacle with the emerging purple foliage, which takes on greener hues in the summer before bowing out with tints of orange.
- Malus transitoria deserves to be more widely grown; this delightful small tree differs from the genus in that the foliage is narrowly lobed. With a profusion of white star-shaped flowers in spring, these mature to hanging clusters of small yellow berries, which again persist long after the foliage has fallen until they are enjoyed by very hungry birds, which will devour all of the other berries in your garden, leaving the yellow, the least attractive, to the last.
The spindle is a familiar site in our native hedgerows, but in a garden setting, the stunning colour of its shocking pink fruit, which split open to reveal orange seeds, will brighten up the winter garden, long after its foliage has fallen. One of nature’s surprises that such insignificant flowers could mature to such a spectacle.
- Euonymus europaeus ‘Red Cascade’ is the popular choice but another to grow is Euonymus grandifloras ‘Red Wine’ the latter named for its stunning autumnal foliage, with fruit a paler colour than ‘Red Cascade’, for those who prefer a more muted palette.
Callipcarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’
An article about berries would be incomplete without extolling the virtues of the Beauty Berry – an apt name for a shrub which produces clusters of striking berries of an intense violet, which cling to the branches like luminescent beads; the foliage also deserves a mention, emerging bronze-purple, before becoming dark green in mid-summer and golden-purple in autumn. One of the few plants to produce fruit of this colour, cut the bare branches laden with berries for floral arrangements with a touch of the exotic.
Cotoneasters are reliable garden performers and often the semi evergreen tree, Cotoneaster frigidus ‘Cornubia’ is the primary choice for multi season interest, with hanging clusters of white flowers which mature to scarlet red berries. But a worthy alternative of this genus is Cotoneaster franchetii, with its grey green evergreen leaves and deep coral berries, clothing the elegant arching branches; this is a shrub for those often difficult to populate garden areas of deep shade, it will also be happy in sites with strong winds.
With over 150 species in the genus Viburnum encompassing both ornamental and native, it is the latter I have chosen to feature here. Often included as part of a mixed native hedge, Viburnum opulus, or Guelder Rose, is supposedly named after the Dutch province of Gelderland, where the sterile cultivar ‘Roseum’ may have originated. This latter produces stunning white ‘snowball’ flowers but no berries, so be sure to select the species opulus, for the abundance of orange/red berries, which mature from the beautiful white lace-cap flowers appearing mid-late summer.
The many varieties of Cornus alba are mainly grown for their colourful stems which add structure to borders from late autumn to early spring, (when they should be pruned hard to maintain intensity of colour for the following season). However, the berries are often overlooked in favour of their main event, and some, like Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ produce a white berry with an unusual bluish tinge, which creates a striking contrast against the crimson red stems.
The wild blackberry has been growing in the countryside for centuries and traditionally harvested in autumn for making delicious pies, cordials and jams. Recent introductions of garden worthy cultivars, such as ‘Thornless Evergreen’, ‘Black Satin’ and ‘Waldo’ can now be grown in our veg plots bringing their rich bounty even closer to home.
The unexpected beauty of berries can maintain interest in your garden through those crisp autumn days and into the snowy landscapes of winter. With the best planting season upon us to allow plants to establish their roots before spring, timing is perfect to plan a visit to see these plants at their colourful best.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for any further information on any of the plants mentioned above, which are all currently available from the Nicholsons’ Plant Centre. We look forward to seeing you.