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.
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.
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.
The bright red berries of late cotoneaster, Cotoneaster lacteus, that ripen in autumn may not be as profuse or as bright red as those of firethorn, but they last longer, and even into winter. Birds strangely seem to avoid them. Although the clustered small berries can look just like firethorn berries, they are usually less shiny, and darker red. Clusters of tiny pale white flowers bloom in spring. The small evergreen leaves have a nice glossy and veined texture on top, with hazy gray or tan tomentum (fuzz) below. The grayish brown bark of old stems resembles that of apple or pear trees.
Tall arching stems can get just tall enough to reach first floor eaves, or taller if they happen to be shaded or leaning onto other larger shrubbery for support. In full sun, growth is more dense. Mature plants get a bit broader than tall. Unlike firethorn, late cotoneaster lacks thorns, which make it easier to work with as an espalier or informal hedge. Growth is a bit too irregular for a formal hedge.
Established plants do not need much water, and in some situations can do well without any watering. Unfortunately, late cotoneaster has naturalized as an invasive exotic weed in some regions.