Hollies are innately uncommon in California. Yaupon (holly), Ilex vomitoria, happens to be one of the least common. Ironically, because of its small leaves and dense growth, it is more tolerant to frequent shearing by maintenance gardeners who ruin other hollies. It can actually make a nice shorn hedge.
Hedged yaupon can eventually get up to the eaves of a single story. Unshorn plants can reach the eaves of a second story, and might display showy red berries about an eighth of an inch wide. The small and often randomly serrate leaves are only about half to an inch long, and maybe half an inch wide.
Its name says it all. Firethorn, Pyracantha coccinea, produces an abundance of fiery red berries on unavoidably thorny stems. A few old fashioned cultivars produce equally fiery orange berries. Cultivars with fiery yellow berries are now rare. Berries ripen for autumn, in time to feed migratory birds. Late berries can last longer after migratory birds are gone.
The rigid and wickedly thorny stems of firethorn work well as impenetrable hedges. They are rather difficult to prune and handle without impalement though. Unfortunately, simple shearing deprives formal hedges of some of their new growth that blooms and fruits most abundantly. Selective pruning is tedious and more hazardous, but might enhance bloom.
Shrubby cultivars of firethorn can grow higher than first floor eaves. Mature and vigorous hedges with hefty interior trunks at such height can generate spirelike growth that almost reaches second floor eaves. With pruning, some cultivars that sprawl close to the ground can stay quite low. Without pruning, some slowly form thickets that are several feet deep.
Bloom and colorful foliage provide most of the color besides green within home gardens during spring and summer. Deciduous foliage becomes more colorful for autumn. Winter berries and a few other lingering fruits become more colorful as deciduous foliage sheds through winter. All this color adheres to precise schedules within a collective ecosystem.
Many plants exploit wildlife. It is how they compensate for their immobility. Many provide incentive for the services that they desire from the wildlife that they exploit. For example, after enticing pollinators with fragrance or color, flowers happily exchange extra pollen or nectar for pollination. Many plants provide edible fruits in exchange for seed distribution.
It is no coincidence that so many different winter berries ripen through autumn for winter. They provide sustenance to many migratory birds who rely on them. Overwintering birds who compete with migratory birds appreciate their efforts as well. Such winter berries are small but abundant, for ‘grab and go’ convenience. Bright color is the best advertisement.
Some people appreciate how winter berries attract birds and squirrels into their gardens. Some appreciate the seasonal color of such berries more than the wildlife. Unfortunately, wildlife decides the outcome, and such outcomes are variable. It is impossible to predict if berries will disappear as they ripen, or linger as they deteriorate through most of winter.
Firethorn is likely the most familiar of the winter berries here. It seems to be more prolific with its brilliant red berries than any other species. Some old fashioned cultivars produce bright orange or perhaps even bright yellow berries. Some sorts of cotoneaster resemble firethorn, but with subdued rusty or orangish red display for less refined woodsy gardens.
Toyon, or California holly, is most prolific with winter berries where it grows wildly without pruning. It gets big though. Real hollies, which are more popular in other regions, do not produce many berries locally, particularly since male pollinators are uncommon. English Hawthorn is a small deciduous tree that displays berries that resemble those of firethorn, but on bare stems.
Seasonal color is as variable as the weather. Just as the many different spring flowers bloom differently every spring, and the autumn foliage color is different every autumn, the colorful berries and fruits that linger on many plants through winter respond to the weather. Then, the various birds and other animals that devour them do so at different times, and at different rates every year.
Pyracantha (or firethorn) is probably the most reliable for an abundance of brightly colored red berries. Old varieties with orange or even yellow berries are very rare, perhaps because they are comparably wimpy. Unfortunately, because they are so colorful, and also because they ripen before many of the migratory birds have gone, the berries often get eaten by birds soon after they ripen.
Berries of the various cotoneasters are not quite as colorful, and many ripen slightly later, so they are not so efficiently stripped by birds. Cotoneasters are now more popular than related pyracantha because there are so many varieties with so many different growth habits. Larger types grow into large shrubbery while prostrate types grow as ground cover. Cotoneaster also has the advantage of lacking thorns.
The native toyon can provide large clusters of similar red berries, but only if it is allowed to grow somewhat wildly. It is unable to bloom and subsequently produce berries if regularly shorn. Yet, even in the wild, toyon is unpredictable. Because damp weather can cause berries to rot before they ripen, toyon may be unproductive for many years, and then produce remarkably colorful displays of berries when least expected.
Hollies are the most familiar of colorful winter berries, but are not as colorful as pyracantha or the various cotoneasters because they are almost never provided with male pollinators that they require to develop fruit. Fortunately, their remarkably glossy and prickly foliage is appealing alone.
Flowering crabapples are grown for their impressively colorful pink, white or nearly red spring bloom, but some types also produce sparse and minute red, orange or even yellow crabapples that stay after the foliage turns yellow and falls. English hawthorn lacks the flower color of flowering crabapples, but has more abundant and colorful red or orange berries that linger into early winter after the foliage is gone, or at least until birds find them.
Most red berries that provide color and attract birds through late autumn and winter grow on shrubbery. Berries of English hawthorn, Crataegus laevigata, grow on trees. They are not big trees, but they are distinguished. Mature trees might get no taller than twenty feet, but their furrowed trunks with weathered bark resemble those of older and statelier trees.
Trusses of small white flowers that bloom in spring are comparable to those of pear. Like pear bloom, they emit a potentially objectionable musky fragrance. Modern cultivars that bloom with pink, double pink or double red flowers are less fragrant. English hawthorn is uncommon locally. The few cultivars that produce yellow or orange berries might be rare.
The deciduous leaves of English hawthorn are only about an inch or two long and wide. They are deeply lobed, with a handsomely coarse texture. Foliage can turn rusty orange or brownish yellow for autumn. Defoliation exposes any remaining berries, at least until the birds finish with them too. Thorns are unfortunately unavoidable.
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.
The most abundant bright red berries of autumn are those of firethorn, Pyracantha coccinea. They resemble English hawthorn, cotoneaster and toyon berries, but are shinier and more abundant. Their weight causes their limbs to sag. Most are either rich deep red, or brighter slightly orangy red. Orange berries are uncommon locally. Cultivars with yellow berries are less vigorous and rare.
Berry production may seem to be more variable than it actually is. Healthy plants typically produce a profusion of berries. They only seem to be more profuse if they ripen late, after migratory birds fly south. Such birds are voracious with early berries. Overwintering birds are less numerous, and consume berries slower. Regardless, few berries last long enough to deteriorate and get messy.
Firethorn is thorny enough to function as an impenetrable hedge. However, it is unpleasant to prune with all those thorns. Also, pruning without removing the stems that bloom and produce berries takes effort. Upright cultivars can get higher than downstairs eaves. Some cultivars get only a few feet tall as they sprawl over the ground. Even without berries, the evergreen foliage is appealing.
It is no coincidence that so many colorful berries ripen in autumn as migratory birds migrate south for winter. Such colorful berries are intended for both migratory and overwintering birds. Rodents and other wildlife are welcome to take what they want as well. Most colorful berries are bright red, to get the attention of birds and wildlife. They are a convenient ‘grab and go’ size, and abundant.
Plants who produce colorful berries are pleased to provide in exchange for the dispersion of their seed. It is an ingenious system. Everyone involved does what they do best. Plants produce their colorful berries to exploit wildlife. Wildlife exploits the berries. Seed within the berries survives digestion, and gets ‘deposited’ elsewhere. Most types of berry seed germinate best after digestion.
Colorful berries are popular in home gardens either to attract birds, or because they are delightfully colorful for autumn and winter. Of course, many that should remain colorful attract birds instead. Fortunately, birds are good sports, and often leave colorful berries long enough to blet (age). Then, polite birds consume the berries before they get messy, and ideally take their mess elsewhere.
Various hollies are famous for their colorful berries. However, not many hollies reliably produce many berries here. Because they are dioecious (of separate genders), commonly available female plants are fruitless without rare male pollinators. Fortunately, modern hollies are becoming available in conjunction with pollinators. Otherwise, the best colorful berries are of the Rosaceae family.
Firethorn is the most profuse and most familiar of the colorful berries through autumn and winter. A few species and cultivars of Cotoneaster can be almost as prolific, but with more subdued color and stature. Toyon is a related native species that performs well in unrefined landscapes. English hawthorn produces similar colorful berries, but develops into a small and gnarled deciduous tree.
Unfortunately, none of these colorful berries are notably edible. In fact, some are mildly toxic.
Heavenly bamboo, or simply ‘nandina’, is one of those many plants that almost never performs like it should. The intricately lacy foliage is so appealing while plants are young, and changes color with the seasons. The red berries can be comparable to those of holly. Unfortunately, healthy plants grow, and then ultimately get shorn into globs of disfigured leaves and stems.
The same abuse afflicts Oregon grape (mahonia), mock orange (philadelphus), forsythia, lilac, abelia and all sorts of shrubby plants that really should be pruned with more discretion. Their deteriorating older stems should be pruned to the ground as new stems grow up from the roots to replace them. It is actually not as complicated as it seems.
This pruning process, known as ‘alternating canes’, prunes the plants from below. It is a standard pruning technique for maximizing production of blackberries, raspberries and elderberries. It is similar to grooming old stalks from bamboo and giant reed, even if it does not prevent them from spreading laterally.
The deteriorating older stems, or ‘canes’, are easy to distinguish from newer growth. Old canes of Heavenly bamboo and Oregon grape become heavy on top, and flop away from the rest of the foliage. Old canes of mock orange and lilac get gnarled and less prolific with bloom. Aging abelia and forsythia canes become thickets of crowded twigs.
The newer stems are likely a bit lower, but are not so overgrown. Since the foliage is not so crowded, it is displayed on the stems better. Their blooms or berries are more abundant. By the time new growth becomes old growth, there will be more newer growth right below it. In fact, the regular removal of aging canes stimulates growth of new canes.
This is the time to prune Heavenly bamboo and Oregon grape, just because the oldest foliage is as bad as it will get after the warmth of summer. Mock orange, forsythia and lilac should get pruned while dormant through winter, but are commonly pruned just after they finish bloom early in spring. Abelia should probably wait until spring because new growth can look sad through winter.
Jelly and jam made from garden grown fruit affords more prestigious bragging rights than merely growing the fruit. Using unusual or disregarded fruit makes it even more interesting. It is not too much work, but involves a different kind of creativity. So many of us who are proficient in the garden are not so proficient in the kitchen.
Apricot, peach, plum, grape, blackberry and raspberry are the most familiar choices for jelly and jam. Nectarine can substitute for peach. Prune works like plum. Strawberry is rare only because not many gardens produce enough for a batch of jam. Sweet cherry is not as tasty as tart types, but is sometimes made into jam because it is relatively common.
Apple and pear are not often made into jelly because they have such mild flavor. However, they are sometimes mixed with other fruit to blend flavors, and because they can provide pectin. Quince has a richer flavor, and makes a traditional jam known as membrillo. Crabapple likewise makes a classic jelly. Apple can be made into apple butter.
Pectin is what puts the jell in jelly. Many fruits are naturally equipped with it. Apricot, peach and cane berries do not have enough. Plum, prune and grape initially have enough, but it breaks down as the fruit ripens, which is why jelly recipes without added pectin often designate that fruit must be firm or just ripening. Otherwise, pectin must be added to get jelly or jam to jell.
With added pectin, pomegranate, fig and rhubarb (which is actually a vegetable) can be made into jelly and jam. Orange and lemon marmalades do not need to be cooked as much with extra pectin. Sweet oranges (which is what almost all oranges are) lose flavor with cooking. (Sour oranges for marmalade are very rare here.)
Pectin also makes it possible to make jelly and jam from some rather unconventional fruit that may not be useful for much else. Elderberry, hawthorn, thimbleberry, rose hips (some varieties), Hottentot fig (the larger fruited type of freeway iceplant) and even coffeeberry and manzanita are all worth trying. Indian hawthorn and Catalina cherry have enough pectin to jell on their own.