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.
English 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.
Some of the most convenient bird feeders in the garden are some of the many plants we grow. Since so many plants exploit the birds as much as they get exploited by the birds, they naturally produce something that the birds want, when they want it. Right now, meaty seeds cater to migratory birds that need to plump up to travel, hoping that some of the seeds get dropped elsewhere or buried for later (hence ‘sown’ if forgotten, as they often are).
Since the climate is so mild, there is always something blooming to provide nectar for both migrating and overwintering hummingbirds, which inadvertently pollinate the flowers that feed them. Later in the winter, colorful berries feed hungry overwintering birds, in exchange for the dispersion of the small seeds within. (Digestion of the seeds does not harm them, and promotes germination.) Robins do not seem to do much for the garden, but certainly do enjoy digging for worms in unraked leaf litter.
Those who enjoy birds often intentionally plant pyracantha or cotoneaster to provide berries for birds in winter. Various salvias that bloom at various times likewise make nectar for hummingbirds. Fading sunflowers can be left out this time of year until birds that eat the seeds are finished with them. Alternatively, bird feeders can actually provide more food, and extend the seasons through which such food is available. Suet feeders provide something that plants can not provide.
The problem with plants or bird feeders that attract birds is that they can also attract less desirable guests. Squirrels and rats are the worst. Some bird feeders can be protected with exclusion devices. Cats have no interest in the plants or bird feeders, but can be a serious problem for the birds, and are not so easy to dissuade. Fortunately, hawks are rarely a threat in urban gardens, especially where there are trees to inhibit their hunting from above.
Contrary to popular belief, providing food to migratory birds does not interfere with natural migration. Cooling weather and shorter days are enough to convince birds to leave. The extra food actually helps them on their way once they get going. It also helps those that naturally stay here through winter. Some birds actually migrate to here from colder regions to the north. With winters so mild, there is no need to go any further.
Just a short distance from the corn dog orchard, I found this candy corn dog growing wild. I really had no idea that candy corn grew in a corn dog form like this. These particular candy corn seem to have turned from green to yellow to orange as they ripened. It will be interesting to see if the outer ends eventually ripen to yellow like conventional candy corn, or if they are a fancier cultivar. They sort of look like tiny persimmons.
Perhaps it is ‘Cupid Corn’, which is red at the outer end and pink in the middle, for Saint Valentine’s Day. If so, it will be quite stale long before next February.
Even if it is ‘Reindeer Corn’, which is red at the outer end and green in the middle, for Christmas, it will not likely be fresh by late December.
Heck, just expecting it to last until Halloween is a stretch. There are actually a few different cultivars for a variety of holidays, so this one could be for any of the obscure holidays before Halloween that few know about; or it could be very out of season.
I do not know how this candy corn dog got here. I did not plant it. I am pleased that snails, slugs, squirrels or insects have not eaten it so far.
Something came into this part of the landscape earlier, and ate all the foliage off of the Arum italicum. Even though it is a naturalized exotic weed, the Arum italicum was rather appealing, with its intricately lacy foliar variegation. It is completely gone now, but should regenerate once rain resumes in autumn or winter.
For now, the candy corn dog is more colorful than the Arum italicum was. How odd that it has no foliage. hmmmm . . .
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.
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.