Midwest Natural Gardening: Adding Winter Interest To Your Garden With Berries
Bright berries can provide a beautiful splash of color to your garden during the long, cold Midwestern winter while providing an important winter food source for birds and other wildlife.
Great Berry-Producing Shrubs For Winter Color
Many shrubs that are native or naturalized to the Midwest region produce berries that linger until midwinter or even early spring.
- The classic winter shrub American Holly (Ilex opaca) is a native broadleaf evergreen with bright red berries that are popular with birds. Holly is hardy from zones 5-9, but can sometimes be coaxed to survive in colder climates against a wall with warm southern exposure and protection from cold winds. To produce berries, you must have at least one male and one female plant.
- Holly’s hardier relative, Winterberry (Ilex verticilatta), lacks the distinctively shaped leaves of holly, but its bright red berries are just as ornamental and popular with birds. Native to the US and Canada, it is hardy from zones 4-7. Like holly, winterberry requires male and female plants in order to produce berries.
- Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is as astringent as the name suggests and is an important late winter food source for birds after they have already eaten all the tastier berries. Despite the astringency, chokeberries have received a lot of attention recently due to their extremely high antioxidant levels. Aronia juice is now available in many health food stores. The berries can also be used to make jam, syrup, wine, tea, and other foods for humans.
- The Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is similar in habits and appearance to chokeberries and was one of the staple foods of many American Indian tribes in the Midwest and Great Plains regions. The attractive berries are also eaten by birds and other wildlife.
- The American cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum or Viburnum opulus var. americanum) produces one of the most ornamental berries of a family well known for its ornamental berries. The tart berries are edible by both humans and wildlife. More great berry-producing viburnums include the Squashberry (V. edule), the Mapleleaf Viburnum (V. acerfolium, and the Arrowwood Viburnum (V. dentatum).
- Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) produces interesting conical clusters of red berries.
- Residents of the southern Midwest may be able to enjoy the spectacular show put on by the Firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea), a thorny, spreading shrub that produces a huge crop of bright red or orange berries in fall. Unfortunately, Firethorn is only hardy to zones 6-9.
- Many Cotoneasters (Cotoneaster species) also produce large crops of red or orange berries that are used as an emergency food source by birds. Cotoneaster’s cold-hardiness varies from species to species. Most varieties are evergreen in warmer climates, deciduous in cooler ones.
Small Trees With Winter Berries
A few small trees also produce beautiful crops of berries that persist into the winter:
- The lovely Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) is better known for its spring blossoms, but it also produces attractive red fruits that persist into winter and are relished by birds. Other dogwood shrub and tree species have blue, white, or purple berries. A few more popular species include Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea), Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum), and Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia).
- Like the dogwoods, crabapples (Malus species) are more commonly planted for their lovely blossoms, but they also produce attractive fruits that are used as a late winter food source by birds and for jellies, juices, and many other products for humans. A few cultivars recommended for human consumption include ‘Dolgo,’ ‘Selkirk,’ ‘Calloway’ and ‘Ralph Shay.’ Birds will enjoy both these larger-fruited varieties and smaller ornamental fruits from cultivars such as ‘Snowdrift,’ ‘Indian Magic,’ ‘Profusion,’ and ‘Adirondack.’
- Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) is another small ornamental tree with pretty blossoms and winter-persistent fruit.
- Common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) produces red fruits popular with many birds, including wild turkey and cedar waxwing.
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