Most people think of pretty leaf colors as the main autumn attraction, and they certainly can be, but I also think of all the ripening fruit – not just the edibles, but all the decorative berries that reach full color in autumn. We think of fall as the harvest season and it’s certainly true for wildlife that feeds on nuts and berries. Bumper crops of acorns and beech nuts may be juicy but intermittent, but colorful berries abound every year. Sometimes I feel like I’m thinking like a bird because what I see is a feast of fruit; the human in me certainly appreciates the varying colors, even if I can’t eat them. Shrubs are the main providers of this bounty, and between natives and non-natives a person can really go to town and have a garden where the berry colors vie with the foliage for attention. [Because plant availability can change daily, if you are interested in purchasing one of the plants mentioned in this post, please call before coming in to make sure we have it in stock.]
Not often thought of as a berry color (probably because it’s rare) there are a couple of plants that can give you this shade. Witherod Viburnum (Viburnum nudum), a native with foliage that also gets attention for its autumn leaf colors of scarlet and burgundy, has big clusters of berries that start pink before they fully ripen to blue. Possomhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) has a similar ripening range from pink to blue-black. A rarer American native, Coralberry (Symphoricarpos x doorenbosii), has true pastel-pink berries along the stems that don’t change color.
One of the most common berry hues, many shrubs ripen red fruit in the fall: Cranberry-bush Viburnum (the native Viburnum trilobum and its European cousin Viburnum opulus) gets its name from the size and color of its berries; Tea Viburnum (Viburnum setigerum) has glossy clusters; hollies of many forms have red berries, from Blue (Ilex x meserveae), Chinese (Ilex cornuta), Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), American (Ilex opaca) and Winterberry (Ilex verticillata); Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) has clusters of glossy berries and is named for the fact that, to birds anyway, the berries must not taste good and they stay on the plant well into the fall; Aucuba is popular for a nice foliage shrub for shade but can also get bright red, olive-sized berries if pollinated; our familiar native Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) gets nice clusters of glossy fruit that draw birds; another tree is Crabapple, many of which have bright or dull red fruits; Cotoneaster is a low or ground-covering shrub that gets a scattering of red berries; some varieties of Nandina get hanging clusters of dark red fruits that birds tend to leave alone. If you do want to feed the birds, try Spicebush; its red berries appear in good numbers on female plants if they get pollinated in spring. Of course, there are also the tasty edibles like apples, cherries and fall-bearing raspberries – bring on the desserts!
Rugosa-type roses and our native shrub roses (Rosa carolina, palustris and virginiana) will produce seeds (“hips”) if not dead-headed which will be varying shades of orange to orange-red. Firethorn (Pyracantha) is named for its thorny stems but the name could also apply to the bright orange (to red) berry color. A couple rarer forms of Winterberry holly (like ‘Winter Gold’) have apricot-orange berries (it’s a nice hue – not “golden” but not pumpkin-orange, either) and, like most hollies, are not of great interest to the birds until at least halfway through winter. A citrus relative named Hardy Orange (Poncirus trifoliata) makes small oranges (though not palatable raw) on a very thorny large shrub; it’s certainly a conversation-piece and the golf-ball-sized fruits can be spotted easily, even though their orange color isn’t as vibrant as the other plants listed here. The tastiest orange, though, comes from Persimmon – both American and Asian – which ripen late in the fall; American Persimmons often have a rosy blush to them with makes for a nice pastel sunset-hued mix and, since there are often a great many of them on female trees, are easy to spot and quite attractive.
Though not your average berry color, I think this deserves greater use since it’s so unexpected (it also pairs nicely with other berry colors like blue and purple) and really stands out, especially against an evergreen backdrop. True, the options are limited; rare varieties of Winterberry holly (like ‘Chrysocarpa’) have truly yellow berries, as do rare forms of American Holly and Viburnum. A scarce variety of Nandina (‘Alba’) has pale yellow berries; this variety also tends to have no red pigmentation in the leaves so the hue is more yellow-green which, I think, accents the berries nicely. Of course, yellow-skinned apples and golden-skinned peaches and apricots will be quite prominent as well as quite tasty.
Also an uncommon berry color and similarly hard to come by, white berries can be equally rewarding when mixed with other colors (red, blue, purple, black) or against an evergreen background. Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) is the cousin to Coralberry and has soft white berries lining the stems. A relatively new variety of Beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Duet’) introduced by the National Arboretum has both white berries and cream-edged leaves, making it a bright spot in the garden for more than one season. Dogwood shrubs like the native Red-twig (Cornus sericea) and non-native Tatarian (Cornus alba) have berries that ripen to white. The lesser-known native Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) is a large shrub or small tree with white berries on beautiful rosy-red stems. As with all dogwoods, their fall foliage color is also a reliable show of red and burgundy, which makes the berries even more visible.
Edibles like some varieties of grapes and plums give the appearance of blue when the purple fruits are coated with white wax. Viburnums like Witherod and Arrowood (Viburnum dentatum) have very showy clusters of blue berries, though birds love them and may clean them off before the end of fall. Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum) is another bird favorite and the berries turn from a porcelain-white to an almost metallic blue with hints of purple. The non-native Red-twig Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) has blue berries that are so dark they can be considered blue-black.
These can be used like white-berried shrubs in terms of color mixing and evergreen backdrops, and many are appealing to birds. Bayberry (Myrica, a.k.a. Morella) is a coastal native that, if pollinated, will have copious small bluish-gray berries along the stems on female plants. Junipers like Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) and Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) have small blue-gray berries on pollinated female plants that last as long into winter as the birds will let them. I can always spot the female redcedars when driving because I can see the ones that are so loaded with berries they make the whole plant bluer.
If anyone is familiar with a purple-berried shrub, odds are it’s Purple Beautyberry. There are native (Callicarpa americana) and non-native forms, all of which have vibrant, neon-purple berry clusters in a shade that has to be seen to be believed. They exist in the background as a nondescript shrub (unless you get one of the several new variegated-foliage forms) until their subtle lilac-purple flowers appear in late summer and then – wham! – in-your-face color all autumn. Think of the possibilities mixed with red, yellow, blue or white berries! A tamer purple can be found in Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), which as the name implies is a very dark color, though to my eyes it’s a purple-black rather than truly black. The birds seem to prefer this Chokeberry over the red one, so berries may not last all winter.
by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer