Seeing berry, berry red

The garden is apt to look a little bleak at this time of year as most of the summer crops quit or tuck in. Amid the faded foliage, sparks of color remain, however — particularly from red berries — and now is the time to take note of the berries you’d like to see in your space next autumn.

The tree whose red berries are drawing cedar waxwings and squirrels to your neighbor’s yard about now is almost certainly flowering dogwood.

Though native dogwoods are succumbing to the fungus disease anthracnose, the pink cultivars are disease-resistant and beautiful at both ends of the season, from flowering to maroon fall foliage and brilliant fruit. Waxwings are nothing to sneeze at either, their beauty coupled with a food-sharing social structure that needs to be seen to be believed.

American holly produces similar berries amid its prickly leaves, but being dioecious, or sexually distinct, it bears fruit only on female trees — and in abundance only if a male tree is within a reasonable bee’s range. (You’ll have to ask your local bees what’s reasonable.) Of course, both sexes offer the winter-landscape benefit of evergreen, glossy leaves. The mountain holly, dioecious too, produces similar berries on a shorter shrub and lacks the distinctive pointy leaves of its larger cousin.

Among shrubs, nandina (native to Japan) is an easy-to-grow fall favorite with varieties that range from 2-feet to 8-feet tall and sport deep red autumn foliage and bright red, poisonous berries. Nandina looks like bamboo and has canes that can be cut back yearly. The shrub is entirely happy in partial shade.

Blueberries deliver their main beneficence in July and August, but the deep red autumn foliage qualifies the bushes as ornamentals. Specific cultivars have been developed for striking fall color and often are visible on highway berms at this time of year.

Barberry foliage is colorful, too, from wine-red or bronze to orange-red, depending on the species. Japanese barberry, Berberis thunbergii, is considered an unwelcome and potentially invasive shrub. But wintergreen and mentor, also barberry varieties, are less troublesome and carry colorful leaves through the winter. Barberry can be planted as an effective privacy fence because few people willingly subject themselves to mutilation by thousands of needle-sharp thorns. On the other hand, pruning can be interesting.

Closer to the ground, numerous plants offer brilliant autumn berries. Jack-in-the-pulpit, a native that presents its distinctive bloom in midsummer, bares a cluster of red berries in fall — a dense clump that persists after the foliage has fallen away.

Baneberry, another native, in midsummer sports a frilly flower cluster that produces a dispersed array of red berries late in the season. Wintergreen, a low-growing evergreen whose foliage and fruit yield its namesake flavor, produces red berries carrying the same flavor. All parts of the plant can be used for tea.

Planning now (even planting, particularly for trees and shrubs) will set you up for a visual treat when next season tucks in for the winter. You might even find yourself host to a flock of waxwings.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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