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Originally published Wednesday, November 22, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Plant Talk

The truth about mountain-ash berries

Q: We just returned from a trip to Newfoundland, where the people make dogberry jams and jellies. The dogberry tree looks just like our...

Special to The Seattle Times

Q: We just returned from a trip to Newfoundland, where the people make dogberry jams and jellies. The dogberry tree looks just like our mountain ash. I have labored under the opinion that mountain-ash berries are poisonous, as the birds never seem to eat them. The berries always land on the sidewalk and make a mess. Do you know if our common mountain-ash berries are edible? I am sorry, I don't know the Latin name of the tree.

A: Botanically, mountain ash are Sorbus species, and the fruit is not only safe, but a favorite of many types of birds. Since mountain-ash berries hang on well through winter, birds depend upon them for cold-weather nutrition. Maybe you have a Sorbus hupehensis with pale berries? Birds seem to prefer the bright orange-berried types such as the eastern or western mountain ashes.

And you're right, dogberry jams and jellies are made from mountain-ash fruit, a confection usually mixed with ginger and apples to add flavor to the rather bland fruit of these very pretty trees.

Q: What are the chances of my 'Gartenmeister Bonstedt' fuchsia surviving the winter planted outside? I have three of them planted in a row on the north side of my home. They are about 3 feet away from the house and are pretty well protected from the wind. I will mulch them well if there's any chance they'll make it through until next spring.

A: These lovely fuchsias from the West Indies tend to be frost-tender and less hardy than many fuchsias, but they've been known to make it through the winter here.

It depends on so many factors — exposure to wind, how well the soil drains where they're planted, whether we have deep freezes this winter, and even the timing of the freezes.

If plants have a chance to harden off gradually, they are better able to withstand a freeze, so usually November cold is more damaging than a freeze in January.

The weather service forecasts a mild winter in the Northwest (although that brief yet serious October freeze has us wondering). If you're a gambler, go ahead and give your fuchsias a good mulching, and don't cut them back until it warms up in the spring.

Q: We purchased our house on Maury Island 4 ½ years ago and this blasted plant (Houttuynia cordata 'Variegata') was growing in our front yard at that time. I thought it was pretty and after re-landscaping the yard I added more, purchased at a local nursery.

Now how in heaven's name do I get rid of this invasive plant? I have dug out all I could, used full-strength Roundup, covered with eight layers of newspaper plus mulch, and the evil plant keeps returning. Please tell me if there is a way to remove it without destroying the neighboring good plants.

A: This tri-colored ground cover, also called the orange-peel plant or Houttuynia cordata 'Chameleon' is very pretty, yet it's so invasive I'm amazed that nurseries still carry it. I've heard from so many readers about how it rampages around their gardens and proves impossible to eradicate.

I never was successful at getting it out of my garden, just fighting it back enough so that it didn't swamp other plants. The roots of this bad actor form a thick mat, and entangle with the roots of neighboring plants, which allows it to persist even when you think you're digging up every last bit of root. If any readers have proven methods for achieving a Houttuynia-free garden, please let me know.

Valerie Easton also writes about Plant Life in Sunday's Pacific Northwest Magazine. Write to her at P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111 or e-mail planttalk@seattletimes.com with your questions. Sorry, no personal replies.

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