Use Berries to Brighten Your Winter Landscape

To keep color in your garden, reach for colorful plants when the season turns cold and gray.

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If your winter landscape could use a little color, you might plant — if your climate supports it — one of the many fine evergreen hollies that come in a multitude of shapes and sizes, bearing fruit in red, orange, yellow or white. Or, you can try something a little different.

But a word about birds. Berry-bearing bushes can present a pang of guilt for the gardener. You're thrilled, of course, if the fruit of your labors feeds the birds in winter, but you'd be happier if there were a bush or two that the birds didn't pick clean the second the berries ripen. The plants presented here give both gardener and bird the best: the fruits are bitter so birds usually eat them later, meaning you'll have some color in your landscape for much of the winter, and when their preferred food supplies run out, the birds get an essential meal (the berries may be bitter, but they're nutritious).


'Afterglow' produces orange to orange-red berries on a shrub about 10 feet high. Hardy to Zone 4. For brilliance of color, hands down, one of your choices should be Ilex verticillata. In late fall, this deciduous, very hardy holly is festooned with bright scarlet berries. But pick your cultivar carefully: some cultivars hang on to their fruit longer than others. The species is a densely twiggy shrub to 10 feet tall. 'Winter Red' is an outstanding selection because of its prolific fruiting; plus, the berries don't discolor and usually persist until mid to late winter, if bird populations allow. Branch cuttings will last for months indoors if you don't put them in water.

There are many other great cultivars as well. 'Red Sprite' is a compact form, 3 to 5 feet tall and wide. 'Shaver', a 5-foot shrub, has large orange-red fruits. Like other hollies, winterberry needs a male companion for fruit set. Either 'Jim Dandy' or 'Apollo' will pollinate 'Red Sprite.' For 'Winter Red' and 'Shaver', use 'Southern Gentleman.' Give winterberry moist, acid soils — it can even tolerate wet soils. USDA Zones 3 to 9.

A U.S. National Arboretum introduction, 'Sparkleberry' is an attractive hybrid (Ilex serrata x I. verticillata), 12 to 15 feet tall, that can tolerate drier soils; 'Apollo' is the male (Zone 5b to 9 for both). 'Jim Dandy' will pollinate. 'Berry Nice' has screaming-red berries so bright that horticulturist and woody authority Michael Dirr "spied (the plant) a quarter of a mile away." To Zone 4, pair with 'Southern Gentleman.'

'Winter King'

A wonderful specimen tree that's underused in the landscape, the hawthorn (Crataegus viridis) grows slowly to between 20 and 25 feet tall with a wide-spreading canopy. The bright red to orange-red berries persist well into winter, often till February. USDA Zone 4 to 7.

Finetooth Holly

This deciduous holly (I. serrata), also known as Japanese winterberry, isn't as cool as the showier I. verticillata because its berries are smaller and often fade in the sun. But one of the cultivars, 'Leucocarpa,' bears huge crops of creamy white berries. USDA Zones 5 to 8.

For a holly that both you and the birds will appreciate a little earlier in the year, plant longstalk holly (Ilex pedunculosa). This tall (20 to 30 feet) evergreen holly presents its red berries on 1- to 2-inch stalks like so many maraschino cherries. The berries redden in fall, and after they've been exposed to a few hard freezes, they seem to become tastier to birds. Yet, many gardeners report having at least some longstalk berries left by early winter. What's more, thorn-adverse gardeners can breathe a sigh of relief: This holly has beautiful longish leaves and no thorns. Even without fruit, this plant is attractive: it has a loose and graceful habit. USDA Zones 5 to 7.

Ilex decidua, or possumhaw, is a great holly for winter food for birds. Most landscapes don't have room for this native — it usually climbs to 20 feet or so, with a 10-foot girth in cultivation (larger in the wild), and suckers to boot, but birds love its berries. 'Warren Red' is the cultivar that's considered the best rendition of an otherwise unruly plant.

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