Of all the aggressively invasive exotic species on the West Coast, Himalayan blackberry, Rubus armeniacus, could be the nastiest! It seems to be impossible to kill. It forms dense thickets of wickedly thorny canes that develop roots where they touch the ground. Even if canes are cut to the ground, and the roots are pulled out, new plants regenerate quickly from remaining bits of roots.
Individual canes can grow more than twenty feet long in their first year! They may lay on the ground to creep under a thicket, or arch up and over other plants that are fifteen feet tall. These canes develop blooming and fruiting branches in their second year. By their third year, they are replaced by new canes. The palmately compound leaves are smaller for the fruiting second year canes.
Trusses of white or very pale pink flowers bloom late in spring. Dark purplish black berries that started ripening a few weeks ago are now being depleted. Some experts believe that Himalayan blackberries are bigger and sweeter than the fruit of most garden varieties. However, berries are only bigger among well cultivated canes; and keeping canes contained and pruned is not easy.
Himalayan blackberry is to cane berries what blue gum is to eucalypti. It is what gives all cane berries a bad reputation, and is why so few of us want to grow them. Himalayan blackberry grows as an extremely vigorous weeds, extending sharply thorny canes over anything within reach. When the canes are removed, the tough roots are extremely difficult to remove and kill.
If ignored, the canes ‘leap’, which means that they develop roots where they arch back downward to touch the ground. From there, they grow into new plants that extend new canes in all directions, to start the process all over again. (‘Leaping’ is like ‘layering’, which involves the development of roots where stems ‘lay’ on the ground.) Their seed gets where their canes do not.
The thorns are ‘prickles’, which really is a technical term for sharply pointed distensions of bark or epidermis. They are more like stout prickles of rose canes than the more finely textured prickles of garden varieties of cane berries. They are rigid, extremely sharp, and curved inward to snag victims on their way out; so are seriously wicked and potentially dangerous to handle.
Harvesting berries from second year canes is not easy. Most are out of reach within bramble thickets. Because they ripen through a long season, they must be harvested repeatedly, as those that were unripe during a previous harvest finish. This is why there are black, red and green berries in the same picture. The berries are small and variable, with good years and bad years.
This happens to be a good year. The thorny truss of a few small berries in the picture may not look like much; but there are plenty of them. The berries are quite richly flavored too. Those who have the patience to collect them will get some good jam or jelly out of the deal.
Botanists took a while to contrive an identity for toyon, which is also known as Christmas berry and California holly. It was classified as a species of Crataegus, two different specie of Photinia and two other specie of Heteromeles before it was finally identified as Heteromeles arbutifolia. Meanwhile, the town named after it changed its name only once from Hollywoodland to Hollywood.
Toyon is native to the coastal chaparral regions of California and Baja California, as well as British Columbia, so it can be quite happy with minimal watering or none at all in home gardens. Too much water is likely to rot roots. Fire blight unfortunately seems to be more of a problem in refined landscapes than it is in the wild. Toyon can be pruned up as a small tree, but must not be shorn.
Where it competes with other trees, toyon can get more than twenty feet tall. Those that are well exposed are typically less than twelve feet tall, with nicely well rounded canopies. The evergreen leaves are somewhat serrate and narrow. Fluffy trusses of small white flowers bloom early in summer. Big hanging clusters of bright berries ripen in autumn and linger until birds eat them in winter.
There is much more to the landscapes at work that I wrote about earlier this morning at https://tonytomeo.com/2019/01/05/six-on-saturday-cabin-fever/ . Otherwise, my job would be quite boring.
I do not climb big trees; so any work that the redwoods need must be done by someone else. The big redwoods, as well as the ponderosa pines, Douglas firs and various oaks, are of course the most prominent and memorable features of the landscapes. There are also a few other exotic trees that were added to the landscapes years ago. My primary work with those that have grown beyond my reach is identifying problems for other arborists to correct or remove.
However, there is plenty at ground level to keep us very busy.
Our landscapes are simple and somewhat unrefined. They take as much work as they do because they are so big and dispersed over a large area. There seems to be only a few small beds of flowering annuals, but collectively, these flowering annuals cover quite a significant area. There are likewise only a few roses here and there, but they add up to quite a big collection.
This firethorn lives in one of the landscapes that we maintain that is more than a mile away from the pictures that I posted earlier this morning. It is an area forested with big ponderosa pines and chaparral plants. Unlike the deep and dark redwood forest, this area is warm and sufficiently well exposed for all these bright red berries to develop. It is a completely different climate zone, soil type, and landscape style. Because it is within the context of a much larger and rustic landscape, I do not notice it like I should. Now that it got my attention, I got its picture before the birds take all the berries.
We all know that holly is famous for holly berries, but in modern gardening, English holly, Ilex aquifolium, is appreciated, or despised, for its distinctively glossy but very prickly evergreen foliage. Like countless tiny thorns, the foliage is too prickly to handle for those who despise it. Those who appreciate it know there is no substitute for the elegantly polished sheen and handsome texture.
The lack of berries is due to a lack of pollinators. Most plants are female, so are capable of making berries. However, until recently, male plants were not even available in nurseries. Old formal hedges of female plants were typically accompanied by a few male plants in less refined parts of the same garden. Some newer hollies are grown with two plants of both genders in the same pot.
Most English holly is rich dark green, even though there are many exquisitely variegated cultivars. Some are variegated with silvery white or creamy white. A few are variegated with lemony yellow or gold. Variegated specimens tend to stay smaller. Unvariegated specimens can slowly grow into small shade trees with less prickly upper foliage, although most are kept less than ten feet tall.
The first specie to be imported to North America from Europe were utilitarian plants that produced fruits, vegetables or other horticultural products. English hawthorn, Crataegus laevigata, was likely one of the first ornamental specie to be imported merely because those who were familiar with it appreciated the delightful white spring bloom and the rich red berries in autumn and winter.
The biggest trees should not get much higher than second story eaves, but the handsomely coarse texture of the bark, furrowed trunks and almost oaken foliar texture make these relatively small trees seem rather grand. Unfortunately, the stems, particularly the most vigorous, are quite thorny. The lobed leaves are about one or two inches long and wide, and might turn orange in autumn.
The trusses of small white flowers that bloom in spring resemble those of pear, and like pear bloom, produce a musky fragrance that some might find objectionable. Some cultivars and hybrids bloom with less fragrant pink, double pink or double red flowers. Some produce orange or yellow berries. If birds to not take them too quickly, the pendulous trusses of berries can last into winter.
In milder climates of California, where many of us expect at least a few flowers to bloom right through winter, autumn foliar color and colorful winter berries are not appreciated quite as much as they are where autumn and winter arrive earlier, and are cool enough to prevent lingering bloom. Coincidentally, the same mild weather that allows winter bloom here also limits autumn foliar color.
However, mild autumn and winter weather does not inhibit the production of the various winter berries. Such berries can either provide extra color while bloom might be scarce, or at least keep migrating and overwintering birds well fed while trying to do so. Many of us actually grow colorful berries more to keep wildlife happy than to provide color. Some enjoy using them like cut flowers.
It is no coincidence that most colorful berries that ripen in winter are small, red, and profuse. Just like flowers use color to attract pollinators, many types of fruits use color to attract the birds that eat them and subsequently disperse their seed. Bright red happens to work best for that purpose, although there are other options. Small berries happen to be easy for birds to grab and go with.
Most of the specie that provide winter berries are related, within the family of Rosaceae, and most are evergreen shrubs. Of these, firethorn, which is also known by its Latin name of Pyracantha, is the most familiar and most prolific with berry production. The various specie and cultivars of Cotoneaster are not nearly as bold with their berries, but provide a bit more variety of plant form.
English hawthorn and related hawthorns happen to be small deciduous trees that defoliate in winter to leave their ripe berries exposed. Incidentally, as their names imply, both firethorn and the various hawthorns are unpleasantly thorny. The native toyon is a big evergreen shrub that can get almost as big as the smaller hawthorns, and has the potential to be pruned up as a small tree. Hollies are not related to the others, and although very traditional, are unreliable for berry production locally.
Just last Saturday, in the first of my two ‘Six on Saturday’ posts, I mentioned that I had never before seen the berries of barberry. https://tonytomeo.com/2018/12/08/six-on-saturday-too-much-autumn-color-iii-cherries-berries-plums-apples-ginkgo/ Well, just a few days afterward, which was also a few days ago, while getting pictures for the English hawthorn that will be featured on Tuesday, in the same mostly brutalized landscape that I happened to mention in a post last Wednesday, https://tonytomeo.com/2018/12/12/horridculture-disdain-for-bloom/ , I noticed that the barberry shrubs were adorned with these odd red berries. They were quite tiny, not much bigger than grains of white rice. Nonetheless, they were the berries that I had never before seen. Now I know that barberry really does produce berries.
I had heard that such berries had medicinal and culinary application, but because I had never seen the berries before, I believed that the fruit was obtained from other specie. Perhaps the barberries that I am familiar with in landscape situations produce less fruit or no fruit at all because they are sterile interspecific hybrids. Perhaps they rely on specific pollinators who are not endemic here. I never bothered to investigate the lack of berries.
Now that I found a source for the berries, I sort of want to try them. However, they are tiny, and suspended among those wiry and famously thorny stems. Those in this picture are probably all gone by now anyway. Little birds have no problem with the thorns. Besides, even if I got a few, I would not know what to do with them. They can supposedly be used as a flavoring, and taste something like tart citrus. Well, at least I know where to find them if I want to try next year, if the so-called ‘gardeners’ who just ruined the flowering crabapples do not destroy them first.
Of all the colorful berries that ripen in autumn, firethorn, Pyracantha coccinea, is the most colorful, and also the most familiar. The berries are almost always bright red, deep red or reddish orange. Cultivars with orange berries have become rare. Those with yellow berries are even more rare, and are weaker plants anyway. The berries can linger through winter, but typically get eaten by birds half way through.
Firethorn earns its name with formidable thorns. A hedge of firethorn is more impenetrable than a fence topped with barbed wire, but much more appealing with glossy evergreen foliage. The only problem is that no one wants to prune such a nasty hedge! The arching stems can get taller than ten feet, and without adequate pruning, can easily get as broad. Young plants are limber enough to be espaliered.
The fragrance of the profuse clusters of tiny white flowers that bloom in spring and summer may be objectionable to some. Shade inhibits bloom and subsequent development of berries. Feral seedlings sometimes appear, but they are wimpier, thornier, and less prolific with berries than their modern cultivar parents are.
Just as many flowers attract pollinators with color, some types of fruit employ color to get the attention of birds and other animals. Just as many flowers reward their pollinators with nectar, fruit is its own reward to the animals that eat it. The only catch is that those who want the fruit must disperse the seed within. For both the hungry animals and the fruiting plants that lack mobility, it is a rather equitable arrangement.
Much of the fruit that uses this technique ripens in autumn, and linger through winter, when there is not much other fruit. It is available to migratory birds and animals that want to fatten up for winter. Unlike nuts and large seeds that get buried locally by squirrels, the tiny seeds of winter berries typically get eaten and ‘dispersed’ more remotely. Some actually need to be scarified by digestion before they will germinate.
Because they put as much effort into attracting vectors to disperse their seed as flowers put into attracting pollinators, fruit and berries can add significant color to the home garden. Oranges, mandarins, lemons, grapefruits and other citrus are quite colorful, even though they do not expect to be taken away by birds, To attract crows, persimmon fruits get as colorful for winter as their foliage was through autumn.
Firethorn (pyracantha) is probably the most colorful and profuse of the ornamental berries. Various specie and cultivars of cotoneaster produce similar berries, but not quite so prolifically. They are popular for their resiliency. Toyon, which is the native ‘California holly’ that Hollywood is named for, is a bit too finicky for irrigated and refined gardens, but can be quite colorful with berries in wild or casual landscapes.
Firethorn, cotoneaster and toyon, as well as English hawthorn, all produce similar ‘pomme’ fruits, which are actually more like tiny apples than real berries. They are so popular with the birds that they are not very messy; although the birds may be if they loiter. English hawthorn is a small deciduous tree, so yellows and defoliates as the bright red fruit ripens.