Almost Fruitless

I keep trying and failing to have lots of autumn berries in the garden. Berries are good to have, in theory, because they attract birds and provide ornamental interest in fall and winter.

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Starry Solomon’s Plume

Of course, those two goals are to a great extent at cross purposes. If the berries are eaten by birds (or just as likely, squirrels) they won’t be around for us to admire in fall and winter.

We have three plants in the garden whose fruit gets gobbled up so quickly that it is totally useless late seasonal interest-wise: Cranberrybush Viburnum (Viburnum trilobum), Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa), and Spicebush (Lindera benzoin).

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‘Donald Wyman’ Crabapple

A few of our plants have fall fruit with ornamental value. First off, there’s Starry Solomon’s Plume (Maianthemum stellatum). This is a low-growing shade perennial. Its berries start green with unusual dark stripes, then turn red when ripe.

Then there’s ‘Donald Wyman’ crabapple. Birds are not quick to eat the red fruit for some reason. We’ve also got a young ‘Golden Raindrops’ Crabapple. It bears small yellow fruits but so far in very limited quantities – and they get eaten almost immediately.

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There’s also Solomon’s Plume (Maianthemum racemosum). This plant has been a disappointment despite the nice red berries. In our garden, at least, the stems almost always fall to the ground by the time the fruit is ripe, which spoils the effect. All of my efforts to prevent this have come to naught.

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Solomon’s Seal fruit

Last but not least, there’s Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum). I like the fruit of this plant better than I like the flowers.

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Full frontal Solomon’s Seal

I really want to get a shrub or small tree that keeps its berries long enough to be appreciated. Preferably something that isn’t so attractive to squirrels. Maybe Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) or Winterberry (Ilex verticillata). It will need to tolerate at least part shade. I lean more toward the Chokeberry because it has more going on in terms of flowers and foliage. What do you think?

57 Comments on “Almost Fruitless

  1. Beautyberry. Our native Callicarpa americana probably isn’t hardy enough for your area. However, the Morton Arboretum has this information on Callicarpa dichotoma. Beautyberry has nice foliage in the fall, will grow well in shade or part shade, isn’t fussy about soil, and holds its berries. It tends to be as wide as tall, so a three-foot tall plant would be about three feet wide, unless gently coaxed into different form. I see they have a link to some cultivars, too.

    The birds adore it, but around here they don’t tend to strip it. And, as a plus, you can make a nice jelly from the berries — at least, our native species is pretty tasty.

  2. I have holly bushes and the berries are bright red. But, while there are lots of flowers in the spring, most of them don’t turn to berries. But winter there are maybe a handful. Bummer.

  3. Perhaps you could try Pyracantha. I’ve heard that birds wait to eat those berries until they’ve fermented, and then when they eat them, the birds get intoxicated. That might be fun to see.

    • It’s hardy to zone 6, so it would be a bit marginal around here. It’s a thought, though. My parents had Pyracantha in their garden, I remember those orange berries well.

  4. According to the books, birds choose red first, then orange and lastly yellow, the trouble is, the birds don’t read the books! I find Pyracantha berries aren’t eaten by the squirrels, don’t think they like the huge spines which the birds manage to avoid.

  5. Our Crimson Rosellas ate red berries from a neighbouring garden & then swayed around strangely in our trees… Fortunately we realised they were intoxicated!

  6. I have a crabapple and the birds have scorned the berries, which are yellow, despite the drought which has meant less food for all native animals.

  7. To begin with the crab apples were never eaten by the birds; they have slowly learned that the red ones are edible but it seems to be by the birds that arrive here in late winter. I have a yellow crab apple too and they just fall off very quickly; one has grown into a young sapling which I need to move away from the parent tree but will probably try to find a home for it somewhere in the garden.

  8. You have a lot of berry-bearing plants, shrubs, and trees. Any berry that forms in my garden is eaten before it can be fully appreciated!

  9. Yes, beautyberry! Is it hardy in your zone? It’s just a splendid fall “show off” in my garden, growing in part shade. And who can resist a name like callicarpa?

  10. Beautyberry is a great suggestion! The birds do eventually eat the berries once they discover them but they’re kind of a last resort food source. It’s stunning when the foliage turns golden making the violet berries even more showy. However, during most of the year, it’s just a green blob with little interest. Pokeweed is really pretty but some consider it kind of weedy.

  11. My neighbor has a holly that gets loaded with red fruit. The only bird that seems to eat the berries is a Mockingbird. It comes into our gardens every winter. Protects the holly from other birds and dines on those berries all winter. It seems to take it all winter to eat the berries. It is interesting to watch the berries disappear in sections. The holly is on the front of their house where it gets morning sun but that is all. I don’t know the cultivar but it isn’t huge like the American holly. Of course you need a male around to make sure you get berries.

  12. I have a Viburnum ‘Brandywine” that produces tons of salmon colored berries that turn dark purple in late fall. Late winter I have seen a dozen robins gobbling up the berries and occasionally Cedar Waxwings visit it.

    • That sounds pretty nice. ‘Brandywine’ is a cultivar of the native V. nudum. Only thing that makes me hesitate is the Viburnum beetles that have been popping up everywhere (though I haven’t seen them in our garden to date).

  13. My dad had some kind of flowering crab that produced fruit which hung there all winter long. Then in late winter, the robins emerged from the woods and devoured the fruit. I think some fruit is not palatable to birds until it is broken down by winter weather. Also, it may depend on what else is available; some summers the fruit disappears quickly while other years it hangs on all winter.

    • The Cranberrybush VIburnum berries are supposed to be unpalatable until after they have been frozen, and yet mine always disappear by the end of August.

  14. The berries on my winterberry hollies get gobbled up in early December, typically in a single weekend. Something also eats the woody stems, maybe rabbits? I planted a hedge of them for winter interest, but I’m left looking at stubby sticks for most of the winter. Luckily I have a group of midwinter fire dogwood nearby that are amazing to look all winter long.

    • Have you tried wrapping hardware cloth around the base of the stems? Berries hanging on until early December sounds pretty good to me right now.

  15. I think if you planted silky dogwood you’d attract more birds, especially cedar waxwings. Grapes are also a bird magnet and they’ll grow just about anywhere, especially native river grapes. They’ll climb trees, drape themselves on shrubs, etc.
    False Solomon’s seal has a natural habit of leaning down to the ground under the weight of the berries. I see it happen everywhere and I doub’t you’ll ever be able to stop it.

  16. Are elderberries all gone by now? Ours are finished in summer, and mostly get eaten by now. This was a bad year for them. Our native species is the blue elderberry. There is a red elderberry up on top, but I have never tried to do anything with them.

    • The black elderberries are all gone. I’ve got them planted where we can’t usually see them, which was a mistake. The red elderberries always whither on the shrub, though they are supposed to be popular with birds.

      • I was taught that the red elderberries are toxic if not cooked. Well, I cook all elderberries. duh! Our red elderberry is rare, and lives up near summit. Consequently, I have not used them for anything. I would like to grow them so that I can eventually compare the berries. For now, there are more than enough of the wild blue elderberries (although this was a bad year for all of elderberries). In the absence of black elderberries, the blue elderberries are rad!

      • Well, I will find out. I am told that once I try them, I probably will not be impressed enough to try them again, and that the blue elderberries are much better.

      • Our blue elderberries are actually a different species from your black elderberries. Our red elderberries are likewise a different species from you red elderberries. Some could be more toxic than others. Supposedly, the black elderberries are toxic if too many uncooked berries are consumed.

  17. The Solomon’s Seal with berries is very beautiful indeed.
    Such interesting (and to me exotic) plants in your garden… and in the suggestions by the readers.
    Our modest, but delightful option is the local Sorbus (aucuparia), with beautiful autumn foliage and orange-red berries, very much liked by many birds. 🙂

  18. I planted winterberries right next to our front door for that reason. The first year the berries lasted until the end of January and were stunning, especially for the holidays. Then all the local critters figured it out. Now I’m lucky if they last until Thanksgiving! In fact the chipmunks have already started eating the current unripe berries. So winterberries are unfortunately not your best bet…

  19. We have an arrowwood Viburnum that attracts an amazing variety of birds when the fruit ripens. I’ve observed as many as five flickers at once scrambling through it and gobbling the fruit. Also robins, Bluebirds, cedar waxwings, catbirds and cardinals. This spring it got hit hard by Viburnum leaf beetle but at the height of the infestation a group of cedar waxwings showed up and spent days picking all the larvae off!! The plant has now completely re-leafed.
    For crabapples, google/ look up the Cooperative Extension Bulletin from Michigan State University. It is a great chart with lots of data on height, form, disease resistance, flower and foliage color,color, fruit size and color, and bird appeal.

    • Thanks for the reference. Those are some very obliging Cedar Waxwings. I’ve heard, though, that the flowers of Arrowwood Viburnum have an unpleasant smell.

      • The flowers are scentless. However in the autumn the fallen leaves do have a certain smell. It’s worth it for all the birds that visit the bush.

  20. Hello Jason, you can try a rowan tree for berries, they come in many colours from deep red to pale yellow and thy might be able to last into autumn and perhaps winter. There’s also Callicarpa, whose alien purple coloured berries last a long time because none of the local wildlife are brave enough to give it a go.

  21. We have quite a few of the same berry-producing plants here. Interestingly, the Cranberrybush Viburnums sometimes hold their berries through the winter, and sometimes they’re gobbled up very fast–I’m not sure why the variation. I’ve noticed them disappearing faster this year for some reason. I planted an Aronia shrub a couple of years ago, but even though I have it caged, the rabbits keep chewing off the tips. Because of this, I don’t know if it will ever grow tall enough, in the appropriate stage, to bear fruit.

  22. I have also been planting fruiting shrubs, plants and trees with the goal of attracting wildlife and, well, it worked! Similarly, my berries are gone before I can enjoy them myself, but I consider that I’ve met my goal, even though I’d love to see branches drooping with ripe berries. Last year I was very disappointed when my new Brandywine nudum viburnum produced berries that stayed on the shrub all winter, and this year I was disappointed when they disappeared before I got to see them change color!

    I guess I mostly regret that I never seem to catch the birds in the act – I really want a tree or two that will attract a flock of waxwings! I am trying to keep an eye on the 2-3 pokeweed that volunteered by my driveway – they are not ripe yet, but I bet the catbirds will show up as soon as they are!

    • We saw one waxwing once – and never more. I would very much like to see more. They’re supposed to like the Cranberrybush Viburnum, but so far no luck.

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