In the winter garden, berries feed the birds and the spirit
Once a hard freeze hits, we’re left with shapes, shadows, bark and berries to carry us through winter — and it’s the berries that remind us the garden is still alive.
Special to The Seattle Times
JACK FROST works his chilly magic this month. If he’s on his usual schedule, sometime between tomorrow and the 17th of November the temperature will drop to freezing overnight, and we’ll wake up to a glistening white world. Our gardens will be transformed.
As disheartening as it can be when perennials melt down to mush, it’s also a relief. The herbaceous layer of leaves, stems and lingering flowers is history, last season’s garden. Both light and our eyes travel through our freshly edited winter garden, now transparent, reduced to its bones, its essential self.
Even though winter officially arrives with the shortest day of the year more than a month from now, once a hard freeze clamps down, we’re left with shapes, shadows, bark and berries to carry us through the depths of winter.
And it’s the berries, dangling like shiny beads from bare branches, that remind us the garden is still alive out there. The little balls of fruit glisten in the low-slanting sun, spark with color, move with the wind and, best of all, attract swarms of hungry birds. A mixed blessing, to be sure, because the birds are busy stripping the garden of berries. Still, the fruit would fall or wither soon enough, and in the meantime it nourishes these bright, bustling creatures that enliven the garden through the dark days.
The familiar workhorses of the birds’ berry buffet, like pyracantha and holly, mountain ash and nandina, are all pretty enough. But berries come in more showy sizes and colors. Why not choose plants with berries in shades ranging from pearly pink to iridescent lavender, lipstick red and onyx black?
Years ago when I first saw a hedge of beautyberry bushes with their metallic lavender berries, I was sure someone had gotten creative with spray paint. Except such a color is beyond humans to concoct. Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’ has purple-flushed leaves in summer, but by this time of year they’re bare sticks dripping with the most spectacularly colored berries nature has ever created. Plant several together to magnify the effect of the tiny, luminous berries.
Pink never looks better than in autumn when it’s unexpected. Check out the new cultivar of our native snowberry bush called amethyst coral berry (Symphoricarpos x doorenbosii ‘Kordes’) with its large, pale-pink berries that are so stunning in fall flower arrangements I’ve planted a half dozen of them. Rumor is that this snowberry is reasonably deer resistant, but it’s probably too soon to tell.
Our native evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) glistens this time of year with shiny blue-black berries. If the birds leave any behind, the berries make delicious jam or jelly.
You can’t go wrong with viburnum for both spring flower and fall fruit. The new brandywine viburnum (V. nudum ‘Bulk’) sounds spectacular and, despite its cultivar, name grows just 5 to 6 feet tall. The leaves turn maroon in autumn, the better to show off loads of berries that morph from green to vivid shades of pink and blue. And I love the fishing-lure look of the glossy, scarlet berries on the mounding, dwarf cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus ‘Compactum’).
The birds that overwinter here, like chickadees and robins, woodpeckers and quail, are appreciatively called the jewels of the garden. A name that also describes the berries they so flagrantly and delightedly dine on.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.