Prickly thickets of California wild rose, Rosa californica, are not often much to look at, even while adorned with small and sparse pink roses in spring and summer. The fragrant flowers can actually range in color from white to rich pink, and may have more petals, but are not abundant enough to be very impressive at any one time. In autumn though, all the flowers that bloomed in the previous few months leave bright orange or red fruiting structures known as ‘hips’, that linger on the bare canes through winter.
The rose hips of California wild roses had historically been used to make herbal tea because they contain so much vitamin C and have a pleasant flavor. (California wild rose is a ‘tea’ rose but not a hybrid ‘T’ rose.) They can also be made into jelly or sauce. The only problem is that birds like them too, so often take them before anyone else has a chance to.
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.
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.
The red, orange, yellow, purple, white or almost black fruit of ornamental pepper that naturally develops in summer can be seen at any time of year because the plants are grown in artificial greenhouse environments. The peppers are usually small and narrow, and stand upright above their glossy rich green foliage. Some are narrower. Others are a plumper. Technically, the fruit is edible, but it is not as flavorful as peppers grown for culinary purposes.
Because the plants are sensitive to frost, they are more often grown as houseplants than out in the garden. In the garden, they need shelter to survive as perennials. As houseplants, they need warm and sunny exposure in order to bloom and develop fruit. They should be watered regularly, but only as their potting soil is starting to get dry.
Nothing 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.
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.
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.
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.