Beautiful Berries for Fall and Winter

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Monkshood vine (Ampelopsis aconitifolia) brightens up late fall with its jewel-like berries. Source: http://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!

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Bohemian waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) filling up on mountain ash berries. Source: vinepair.com

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.

Crabapple

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Sugar Tyme’ crabapple (Malus Sugar Tyme’) is a blaze of berries from fall through most of winter. Source: Donell Clauser, http://www.pinterest.ca

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.

  1. M. ‘Adams’
  2. M. ‘Adirondack’
  3. M. baccata ‘Jacki’
  4. M. ‘Guinevere’
  5. M. ‘Jewelberry’
  6. M. ‘Molten Lava’
  7. M. Perpetu ‘Evereste’
  8. M. ‘Prairifire’
  9. M. ‘Sugar Tyme’
  10. M. sargentii
  11. 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.

Winterberry

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Winterberry (Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’) certainly brightens up winter days! Source: mgnv.org

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

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Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii). Source: vascularflora.appstate.edu

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).

Snowberry

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The ghostly white berries of snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). Source: 317grow.com

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).

Monkshood Vine

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The stunningly coloured berries of monkshood vine (Ampelopsis aconitifolia). Source: laidbackgardener.blog

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.

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Porcelain vine (Ameplopsis brevipedunculata ‘Elegans’) has both variegated leaves and colourful berries. Source: www.amazon.com

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:

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Firethorn (Pyracantha spp.) has both evergreen leaves and abundant persistant berries, but it’s not very hardy. Source: Laitr Keiows, Wikimedia Commons

  1. Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) zone 4b
  2. Beautyberry (Callicarpa spp.) zone 6
  3. Bittersweet (Celastrus spp.) zone 3
  4. Chokeberry (Aronia spp.) zone 3
  5. Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp.) zones 3 to 9, depending on species
  6. Euonymus (Euonymus spp.) zone 3 to 8, depending on species
  7. European cranberrybush(Viburnum opulus) zone 3
  8. Evergreen holly (Ilex spp.) zone 5 to 9, by species
  9. Firethorn (Pyracantha spp.) zone 7
  10. Harlequin glorybower (Clerodendrum trichotomum fargesii) zone 7
  11. Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) zone 3 to 6, depending on species
  12. Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) zone 6
  13. Ivy (Hedera helix and others) zone 7
  14. Mountain ash (Sorbus spp.) zone 2 to 6, depending on species
  15. Rose (Rosa spp.) zone 1 to 10, depending on species
  16. Rowan tree (Sorbus spp.) zone 2 to 6, depending on species
  17. Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) zone 2b
  18. Sumac (Rhus spp.) zone 3 to 10, depending on species

May your fall and winter garden be filled with gorgeous berries!

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Trees and Shrubs That Self-sow Excessively

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The Norway maple (Acer platanoides) produces so many seedlings it can easily become a garden pest. Source: www.massaudubon.org.

All plants reproduce. If they didn’t, they’d go extinct! But most do so modestly, producing a plant here and there, just enough to maintain their population. Others, though, do so profusely, becoming an annoyance to gardeners and spreading into the wild far from where they are native. Most such plants are simply called weeds and they tend to be annuals, perennials or biennials. However, there are also trees and shrubs that overdo it and can become invasive due to aggressive self-sowing as well.

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False spirea (Sorbaria sorbifolia) can be highly invasive locally, but tends to spread via suckers rather than seed, so doesn’t get far. Source: Fanghong, Wikimedia Commons

Of course, there are different ways in which a plant can become invasive. Through suckers, for example. Think of false spirea (Sorbaria sorbifolia) or staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). They certainly get around, but since they sprout from wandering roots, they only tend to be invasive on a very local scale. Woody plants that spread by seed can get much farther. What with birds, squirrels and wind to carry them greater distances, they can really get around.

I, for example, have no Norway maple on my property, nor do any of my immediate neighbors, but there are several further down the street and as a result, I find hundreds of Norway maple seedlings in my gardens every year.

The Ones That Overdo It

What follows is a list of trees and shrubs that have the reputation of being invasive through their seeds, but…

Not all plants on the list will be invasive under all conditions. They’ll only cause problems when the local environment is appropriate to their needs. For example, tamarisk or saltcedar (Tamarix ramosissima) is very invasive in drier climates, but not a problem at all in more humid ones, while Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), which can be terribly invasive in moderate climates, doesn’t produce fertile seed in colder ones and thus is not a problem there.

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Frangula alnus ‘Ron Williams’ Fine Line is a sterile columnar form of the otherwise invasive alder buckthorn (F. alnus). Source: springmeadownursery.com

Also, there are sterile forms of many of the trees and shrubs listed here, such as Frangula alnus ‘Ron Williams’ Fine Line, a sterile form of the otherwise invasive alder buckthorn (F. alnus), while new sterile varieties of Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) and winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus) are either under development or being introduced. If there’s a tree or shrub you like, but it has invasive tendencies, you can often find a sterile or nearly sterile form you can use with impunity.

Mulching Can Help

Fortunately, using a good mulch will prevent most tree and shrub seeds from germinating. They simply can’t germinate through a thick mulch. That said, some trees—especially nut trees—are among the few plants whose extra robust seeds really can germinate through a mulch. Those that are invasive even under 2 inches (5 cm) of mulch are marked with an asterisk (*).

You Choose

I’m not saying do not plant the plants listed here—some are great garden plants!—but forewarned is forearmed!

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Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus, syn. R. discolor, zone 7) is extremely invasive in some climates, but not hardy enough to be a problem in colder areas. Source: www.nwcb.wa.gov

  1. Alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus, formerly Rhamnus frangula) zone 3
  2. American elm (Ulmus americana) zone 3
  3. Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) zone 2b
  4. Ash (Fraxinus spp.) zone 2 to 7, according to species
  5. Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) zone 4
  6. Bird cherry (Prunus padus) zone 2
  7. Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) zone 4b
  8. Box elder* (Acer negundo) zone 2
  9. Blackberry (Rubus spp.) zone 2 to 8, according to species
  10. Bramble (Rubus spp.) zone 2 to 8, according to species

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    Renowned for its stunning fall colours, burning bush (Euonymus alatus) can nevertheless be invasive in some areas. Source: www.plantes-shopping.fr

  11. Burning bush (Euonymus alatus) zone 5
  12. Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) zone 6b
  13. Chinese elm (Ulmus pumila) zone 2
  14. Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) zone 2b
  15. Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) zone 2
  16. Dog rose (Rosa canina) zone 4
  17. European birch (Betula pendula) zone 3
  18. European privet (Ligustrum vulgare) zone 4
  19. Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus) zone 3
  20. Horse chestnut* (Aesculus hippocastanum) zone 4b
  21. Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) zone 4
  22. Morrow’s honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii) zone 4
  23. Mountain ash (Sorbus spp.) Zone 3
  24. Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) zone 5b
  25. Norway maple* (Acer platanoides) zone 4b
  26. Norway spruce (Picea abies) zone 2b
  27. Pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) zone 2

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    Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) is very invasive in most temperate climates. Source: nyc.books.plantsofsuburbia.com

  28. Plane (Platanus spp.) zone 5 to 9, according to species
  29. Raspberry (Rubus idaeus) zone 3
  30. Redleaf rose (Rosa glauca, formerly R. rubrifolia) zone 2
  31. Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) zone 6b
  32. Rowan tree (Sorbus spp.) Zone 3
  33. Rugosa rose (Rosa rugosa) zone 3
  34. Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) zone 2b
  35. Saltcedar (Tamarix spp.) zone 5 to 9, according to species
  36. Scots pine, (Pinus sylvestris) zone 2b
  37. Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) zone 2b
  38. Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila) zone 2
  39. Siberian peashrub (Caragana arborescens) zone 2
  40. Silver maple* (Acer saccharinum) zone 2
  41. Small-leaved lime* (Tilia cordata) zone 3
  42. Sugar maple* (Acer saccharum) zone 4
  43. Tamarisk (Tamarix spp.) Zone 5 to 9, according to species

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    Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) can be quite invasive in temperate climates. Source: www.florafinder.com

  44. Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) zone 4
  45. Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) zone 6b
  46. Walnut* (Juglans spp.) Zones 4b to 8, according to species
  47. Wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana) zone 2b
  48. Winged euonymus (Euonymus alata) zone 5