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.
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.
New England is even farther away than Williamsburg. Although I have never been there, I sometimes think that some of the vegetation here resembles vegetation there, particularly as foliage and berries get colorful during autumn and winter. Autumn is a bit later here, and does not last as long. The associated color is relatively subdued. There are not as many colorfully deciduous trees. I do enjoy showing off what we get though. There is so much more to California than boringly evergreen palm trees and redwoods; and redwoods happen to make an excellent backdrop for New England style fall color! I will brag about various palms later.
1. Rio Grande turkey was intentionally naturalized here a long time ago, but only began to invade local home gardens since about the 1990s. To me, they look like they belong in New England.
2. Lantana camara makes these weird black berries, which the turkeys are not interested in. Just like turkeys, colorful (or just black) berries in autumn remind me of gardens in New England.
3. Moss, which had been rather grungy and brown through late summer, is now rich and vibrant green from rain last Wednesday. I suspect that moss such as this is common in New England.
4. Tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, is native to neither Maine nor New Hampshire, and was extirpated from its two native counties in Vermont, but is native to other parts of New England.
5. Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, is coincidentally extirpated from the same two counties in Vermont that tulip tree formerly inhabited, and is also native to other parts of New England.
6. English holly, Ilex aquifolium, is from England, which is the original or Old England. It is naturalized here. Just like the other five of these six, to me, it looks like it belongs in New England.
This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:
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.
Williamsburg in Virginia is one of those magical places that I heard about when I was a tyke, but have never been to. My parents went there as newlyweds, as they were considering relocating to Vienna, which is also in Virginia, near Washington. Well, Woodland Gnome of Our Forest Garden happens to be there, and sent me some seedlings of the native American beautyberry that I have been wanting to grow for a very long time! They arrived on Thursday. I retrieved them yesterday. As I prefer, they are what grows wild there, rather than cultivars.
1. Packages in the mail are so much fun! This package came all the way across North America, from Williamsburg in Virginia! That is farther than Ilwaco! Heck, that is farther than Oklahoma!
2. Hand written notes attached to such packages demonstrate impeccable cultural refinement. Oh my, I do not write such notes because it seems to me that no one appreciates them anymore.
3. Beautyberry seedlings in a six pack are the first of the species that I ever met! They looked neater after I set the six pack within another for added integrity, and rinsed the potting media off.
4. There are cuttings also! I have not processed these yet, but should do so in the morning. The foliage remains firmly attached, so will stay with these cuttings until they defoliate for autumn.
5. Berries that are attached to the cuttings might contain viable seed. They will likely be sown in the same cans that the cuttings get plugged into. If there are many, they will get separate cans.
6. Butterfly ginger is a major bonus in the package. It is another species that I had been wanting, but had not yet procured. If its bloom is white enough, some of it may go live at the Cathedral.
This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:
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 . . .