Red berries that ripen through autumn and into winter are becoming prominent. They are too brightly colorful and profuse to hide. Those that do not attract too much attention from wildlife may linger after floral color is finished. Some may last longer than the earliest fall color. Otherwise, if wildlife consumes all of the red berries, that is what they are there for.
Plants are naturally exploitative. Since they are inanimate, they exploit that which is not. Those that do not rely on wind for dispersion of their pollen and seed expect insects and animals to do it instead. Their flowers appeal to preferred pollinators, using color, texture, form, fragrance and flavor. Their fruit, which contains their seed, uses similar techniques.
Red berries mature at this time of year for two primary reasons. Plants that produce them prefer their seed to disperse during autumn or early winter. Also, they know that they can rely on birds or other wildlife to eat the red berries, and subsequently ‘disperse’ the seed within. Overwintering wildlife and migratory birds are particularly hungry as berries ripen.
Red berries are popular in home gardens for two primary reasons. Some people like the birds and squirrels who come to eat the fruit. Most people simply appreciate the red color while floral color is potentially scarce. Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict how birds will behave. They may prematurely consume berries that should provide color for winter.
Although various hollies provide delightfully glossy and densely evergreen foliage, their red berries are scarce or absent without male pollinators. (Hollies are dioecious, so their genders are distinct.) Male cultivars, which had been rare for several decades, have only recently become more available. Yet, even with pollinators, holly berries are not the best.
Firethorn (Pyracantha), toyon and a few cultivars of cotoneaster are more prolific with red berries. Toyon, or California holly, is native, and is the namesake for Hollywood. It is best in wild landscapes where it needs no pruning. Firethorn produces the most berries but is also very thorny. Some cultivars of cotoneaster are both thornless and pleasantly prolific.