Porcelaine vine (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) brightens up late fall with its jewel-like berries. Source: www.pepiniere-villeroy.com
When we select plants for our gardens, we tend to look first for flowering plants and, indeed, we’re lucky to have them. They really do add a lot of beauty to our landscape. But while there are different flowers that bloom from spring to mid-autumn, blooms start to disappear as fall advances … and except in the mildest climates, there really isn’t much in the way of winter bloom.
That’s why, for fall color, we’ve learned to largely rely on trees and shrubs with attractive fall foliage colors … but even these eventually lose their charm. In most cases, colorful fall leaves drop off with the arrival of the first deep frost.
There is really only one group of plants whose main season of interest is late fall through winter: a select group of shrubs, vines and trees that bear beautiful, long-lasting fruits. Often, they only come into their own once the leaves fall: suddenly the berries, hitherto out of sight, are the stars of the garden!
Beauty and Birds Too!
These same trees and shrubs that wow us with fall and winter berries also attract birds to the garden (animals too, but most gardeners prefer birds to squirrels). In fact, fruit-eating birds such as waxwings, grosbeaks and cardinals will be much more abundant in your neighborhood if you plant trees and shrubs with winter fruit. There is even an order in which the birds harvest persistent berries, from the sweetest (first to go) to the most bitter … largely because bitter fruits slowly sweeten over the winter and the worst only become palatable (for birds) when winter is nearly over!
Birds like fruits so much that they empty many trees and shrubs of their berries well before winter begins! Here, therefore, I’ve only included those whose fruits hang on at least into November.
Trees and Shrubs with Late Season Berries
Here are some plants whose colorful fruits persist for months, some well into February or even March.
Nurseries offer a wide range of crabapples (Malus spp.), but not all have persistent fruit. Many mature early in the fall and their fruit drops off almost immediately. However, others have fruits that persist almost all winter. Curiously, it’s the varieties with the smallest fruits—no bigger than the tip of your little finger—that are usually the most persistent.
These tiny crabapples come in different shades of red, purple, orange and yellow … and the same trees also produce abundant and often fragrant blooms in spring, with pink, white, red or purple flowers. Crabapples with persistent fruits therefore have two seasons of interest widely spaced over time.
Do note that I did not include crabapples on my “list of crabapples with winter interest” any that are highly prone to insects and diseases, especially to apple scab, the most widespread apple disease. After all, why plant a crabapple tree that will spend its life looking like it’s dying?
The following crabapples meet two criteria: they have long-lasting fruit and good to excellent disease and pest resistance.
- M. ‘Adams’
- M. ‘Adirondack’
- M. baccata ‘Jacki’
- M. ‘Guinevere’
- M. ‘Jewelberry’
- M. ‘Molten Lava’
- M. Perpetu ‘Evereste’
- M. ‘Prairifire’
- M. ‘Sugar Tyme’
- M. sargentii
- M. sargentii ‘Tina’
These crabapples come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but all are at least fairly small trees, so are suitable for today’s smaller gardens. Also, they are low enough to you can grow them under electric wires without the need for drastic pruning. They prefer full sun and well-drained soil. Dimensions: 13 to 23 feet (4–7 m) x 6 to 20 feet (2–6 m). Zone: 2 to 4, depending on the cultivar.
This shrub native to eastern North America, Ilex verticillata, is one of the most conspicuous shrubs in winter, with innumerable round red berries.
It’s actually a holly (genus Ilex), but it doesn’t fit our image of a holly, lacking the thick, spiny, evergreen leaves that are so typical of those used as Christmas decorations. Instead, the winterberry’s thin, narrow, spine-free leaves turn bright red in the fall, then drop off, revealing the colorful fruits.
There are many cultivars, some with orange or yellow berries, but the most important detail to understand is that winterberries are dioecious, that is to say that the male and female flowers are borne on different plants. So, you have to plant at least one male holly to pollinate up to eight female plants, otherwise you won’t see a single fruit. Nurserymen often make that easy for us by planting a male plant and a female plant in the same pot.
Winterberry is a medium-sized shrub with dark green summer leaves. The tiny white flowers in late spring aren’t very showy, as they tend to be hidden by foliage. This holly prefers rich, rather humid soil and tolerates acid soils without difficulty. Dimensions: 4 to 5 feet (1-1.5 m) x 3 to 7 feet (90–200 cm). Zone 3 or 4, depending on the cultivar.
Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is generally grown for its small but colorful summer leaves, as most cultivars have either purple to reddish leaves (B. t. ‘Concorde’, B. t. ‘Ruby Carrousel’, etc.) or golden leaves (B. t. ‘Aurea Nana’), but, often to the great surprise of those who plant them, they also offer very beautiful, long-lasting fruits in the form of small, elongated, bright red berries that grow pretty much unseen until the foliage drops in late fall.
Be forewarned that this plant has many short, nasty spines. It makes an excellent defensive planting: plant it under your home’s windows and you can be sure no thieves will try to break in!
If you live in a region where Japanese barberry is invasive, you might want to look for sterile cultivars.
Most Japanese barberry cultivars offered are dwarf varieties with a dense, rounded habit. Grow barberry in well-drained soil in sun or partial shade. Dimensions: 18 to 36 inches (45–90 cm) x 36 to 48 inches (90–120 cm). Zone 4b.
There are also other barberry species with decorative winter fruits, but these are mostly limited to climates with fairly mild winters (zones 7 to 9).
The snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) actually grows wild just about everywhere in North America, but it is widely used as an ornamental shrub, notably for hedges, in temperate regions worldwide. Its appearance is usually quite discreet in summer, because its leaves are simply mid green while the small pink flowers are usually well hidden. It is only when the leaves drop off in the fall that you really discover that, under all that foliage, there are dozens and dozens of snow-white berries.
If white is not your color, there are also Symphoricarpos species and hybrids with pink, lilac, red or purple berries. They are usually called coralberries rather than snowberries.
Snowberry is a versatile shrub, tolerant of all soils and growing in both shade and sun. It’s very hardy—to zone 2—as is common coralberry (S. orbiculatus, with coral-red fruit), but the hybrid varieties whose berries come a nice range of quite unique colors are usually a little less hardy (zones 4 to 6, depending on the variety.) Here are three popular hybrid varieties adapted zone 4: ‘Magic Berry’, ‘Amethyst’ and ‘Mother of Pearl’. Dimensions: 4 to 5 feet (1-1.5 m) x 5 feet (1.5 m).
This is a very different plant from the previous ones, because monkshood vine (Ampelopsis aconitifolia) is a climbing plant and, in fact, a very vigorous climber, reaching to the top of trees if you let it. It looks much like a grape vine, with the same tendrils that wrap around thin branches and trellis rungs and similar, maple leaf-shaped leaves, although they are more deeply cut.
In summer, the plant is essentially just a big green vine. Even its tiny flowers are green. Come fall, though, and the berries appear … and what berries! They go through a whole range of colors—turquoise, violet and purple—before reaching the orangey yellow they’ll keep in winter. Often, there are two or three colors at the same time on the same stem!
Unfortunately, despite the spectacular beauty of this plant and its excellent hardiness (zone 4 or even 3), monkshood vine is hard to find in nurseries.
They seem to prefer selling us a variegated relative: porcelain vine (A. brevipedunculata ‘Elegans’). It’s a bit too invasive for my tastes … and the variegated foliage tends to disappear out over time unless you ruthlessly rogue out the ever-more-numerous all-green reversions it produces. Still, it does have lovely berries! It’s a bit less hardy than monkshood vine: zone 5.
Both ampelopsis species grow best in well-drained soil, either in sun or in shade … but fruiting is most abundant in the sun. Dimensions: 10 to 40 feet (3–12 m) x 10 to 30 feet (3–9 m).
Other Fall and Winter Berries to Discover
Here is a list of other shrubs, trees or climbers with persistent berries that can brighten up your falls and winters:
- Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) zone 4b
- Beautyberry (Callicarpa spp.) zone 6
- Bittersweet (Celastrus spp.) zone 3
- Chokeberry (Aronia spp.) zone 3
- Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp.) zones 3 to 9, depending on species
- Euonymus (Euonymus spp.) zone 3 to 8, depending on species
- European cranberrybush(Viburnum opulus) zone 3
- Evergreen holly (Ilex spp.) zone 5 to 9, by species
- Firethorn (Pyracantha spp.) zone 7
- Harlequin glorybower (Clerodendrum trichotomum fargesii) zone 7
- Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) zone 3 to 6, depending on species
- Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) zone 6
- Ivy (Hedera helix and others) zone 7
- Mountain ash (Sorbus spp.) zone 2 to 6, depending on species
- Rose (Rosa spp.) zone 1 to 10, depending on species
- Rowan tree (Sorbus spp.) zone 2 to 6, depending on species
- Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) zone 2b
- Sumac (Rhus spp.) zone 3 to 10, depending on species
May your fall and winter garden be filled with gorgeous berries!