Firethorn

Overwintering birds can not miss firethorn.

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.

Colorful Berries Brighten Wintry Gardens

Bright red attracts hungry overwintering birds.

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.

New Canes Replace Old Canes

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Well groomed canes are not overgrown.

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.

Jellin’ Like A Melon

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This is one way to make the fruits of summer last.

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.

Deck the Halls

P91215-1English holly is politely naturalized here. This means that, although naturalized, it is not aggressively invasive, and does not seem to be too detrimental to the ecosystem. It is only annoying to see out in forests, far from the landscapes that the seed escaped from, and wonder if it has potential to significantly compete with native vegetation. It would be better if it were not there.

At least it is pretty. In refined landscapes, it happens to be one of my favorites for distinctively glossy and prickly foliage. There is nothing else like it. Variegated cultivars are just as striking, with a bit of color for situations where there is already plenty of rich dark green. Female plants produce a few bright red berries. Older or distressed plants might produce more than others.

So, I have mixed feelings about this overgrown English holly tree that I must eventually cut down. In the picture above, it is evident that it is not the prettiest. It is a sparsely foliated thicket of tangled inner stems on an uninterestingly straight and bare trunk. It occupies a prominent position where there should be something of a friendlier disposition. It doesn’t contribute much.

However, it does produce an abundance of delightfully bright red berries. I got these pictures while collecting berries to decorate the buffets and tables of the big dining room across the road.

If it were in my garden, I would probably pollard it back to the bare trunk or perhaps just a short stump, and allow it to regenerate with fresh new foliage. Such a procedure would eliminate the tangled thicket of bare interior stems, but would unfortunately inhibit berry production for at least a few years while new growth matures. I just do not want to give up on it completely.P91215-2P91215-3

Winter Berries Are Showing Color

91211thumbNothing lasts forever. Spring flowers fade. Summer fruit gets eaten. Fall color falls from the trees and gets raked away. Berries and other small fruits that ripen to provide a bit of color through late autumn get eaten by birds and squirrels through winter. Every type of berry and every season is unique. It is impossible to predict how long particular berries will last through any particular season.

It would be presumptuous to believe that colorful berries should remain uneaten in our gardens until they decay. After all, they are produced specially for the birds and rodents who consume them. Their visually appealing bright colors are more culinarily appealing to overwintering wildlife. It is no free lunch though. Well fed wildlife is expected to disperse the seed within the berries they eat.

It is an ingenious system. Wildlife might think that they exploit the inanimate flora who produces the berries and small fruit for them. The associated flora could think that they exploit the mobility of the wildlife who eats their seed laden fruit. Those of us who grow plants who utilize this technique get to enjoy the color of the fruit while it lasts. Some of us prefer to enjoy the wildlife attracted to it.

Firethorn (pyracantha), toyon, cotoneaster and English hawthorn are the best for colorful red berries in late autumn and winter. All are of the family Rosaceae, and produce similar clusters of small bright red or maybe reddish orange berries. Yellow firethorn is rare here. Cotoneaster can be tall shrubbery, sprawling shrubbery, or groundcover. Only English hawthorn is a deciduous small tree.

The many species and cultivars of holly are unrelated to the family Rosaceae. In other regions, some are famous for producing seemingly similar berries. However, those that are the most prolific with berries are unpopular here. Those that are somewhat popular produce only a few berries due to a lack of pollinators. (They are dioecious, so female plants must be pollinated by rare males.)

This is the time of year to appreciate the colorful berries while they last.

Colorful Autumn And Winter Berries

41126thumbBefore the colorful foliage of autumn falls and gets raked away, a few types of berries and fruit start to provide a bit of color to last into winter, or at least until birds and other wildlife eat them. Technically, the most colorful berries are actually intended for the birds, both those that overwinter and those that migrate south for the winter. The berries are designed by the plants that produce them to both entice birds, and to reward them for dispersing the seeds within.

Pyracantha (or firethorn) is the most colorful of the berries. Cotoneaster is similar, but not quite so prolific. Toyon and English hawthorn, which can grow as small trees, produce open clusters of similar bright red berries. Of these, only English hawthorn is deciduous, and can defoliate before the berries disappear. Although such fruit is abundant, it is not often messy because it gets devoured before it reaches the ground. However, the birds can be messy.

English holly really should produce more berries than it does, but there are not enough pollinators out there. (Hollies are dioecious, which means that plants are either male or female. Female plants need male pollinators to produce fruit.) Decades ago, when horticulture was taken more seriously, male pollinator plants were marketed with female plants. Some other types of holly somehow make a few more berries, especially as they get older.

Loquat, mahonia, pomegranate and some flowering crabapples try to produce colorful fruit, but are not quite as colorful. Pomegranate fruit can be impressive in its own way, but are just rusty reddish brown on the outside. Strawberry tree produces a few red berries throughout most of the year. Many types of pittosporum develop fruit, but most are about as green as their foliage. The sticky amber seeds are ‘interesting’ when the fruit splits open, if anyone happens to look that closely.

Oranges, lemons, grapefruits, mandarins and other citrus will be colorful later in winter, even though they do not care if they attract any birds. For now, persimmons are the biggest and most colorful fruits out in the garden.

Himalayan Blackberry

90828Of 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.

Bad Picture Of Good Berries

B90803KHimalayan 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.

Toyon

90123Botanists 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.