If California is the most excellent state in the entire Unites States of America and surrounding Universe, and Oklahoma is the second most excellent, then Oregon might be number . . . hmmm . . . fourteen or fifteen . . . or maybe like twenty or something. However, in MY (very important) opinion, Oregon is like the third most excellent state, and almost ties with Oklahoma! That makes it even slightly more excellent than Pennsylvania, Vermont and Arizona! Yes, it is THAT excellent!
Even the state tree of Oregon is excellent. It is the Douglas fir, pseudotsuga menziesii. That is like the second most excellent of the state trees, right after the coastal redwood of California. If California did not claim the coastal redwood as the state tree, Oregon is the only other state that can claim it as a native, since the native range of coastal redwood extends ever so slightly into the very southwest corner of Oregon.
There was a time when redwood was the main timber tree here, but that was only because it was the most readily available. As the supply was depleted, it was reserved for fences, decks, structural lumber that is in contact with concrete foundations, or any other situation in which its innate resistance to decay was important. Douglas fir became the most common lumber, and is still what homes are built from now.
Besides all that, Douglas fir is one of the grandest of trees in North America.
Then there is the state flower of Oregon. Well, it is not so much to brag about, although it is still better than the state flower of Oklahoma, which happens to be mistletoe. (Okay, that is another subject for later.)
Oregon grape, Mahonia aquifolium, blooms late in winter with these bright golden yellow, but otherwise unimpressive flowers. The few small black berries that develop over summer are mostly taken by birds before anyone notices. The glossy and prickly dark green foliage is quite appealing, and happens to do well in partial shade, but this is the state flower, not the state foliage.
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.
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.
Plants compensate for their immobility by procuring the services of animals and insects. They bloom with flowers that attract pollinators with colors, fragrances and flavors. Their fruits use similar techniques to attract those who consume the fruits to disperse the seeds within. It is a pretty ingenious system. The animals and insects probably think that they are taking advantage of the plants.
Firethorn, toyon, cotoneaster, English hawthorn and the hollies all produce profusions of small bright red berries that are designed literally for the birds. They are just the right size for birds to eat them whole. If they were smaller, birds might prefer other fruits. If they were any bigger, birds might eat them in pieces, and drop the seeds. The bright red color is a blatant advertisement to birds.
Firethorn is probably the most prolific with its berries. It might also be the most popular with the birds. If the colorful berries are not gone yet, they will be soon. Toyon berries seem to last longer, perhaps because they do not all ripen at the same rate. Because it gets big and takes some work to contain. toyon is more common in unrefined landscapes and in the wild than home gardens.
English hawthorn and cotoneaster are variable. Some varieties are more productive with berries than other are. Some types of English hawthorn are grown more for their bloom or foliar color in autumn. They are deciduous, so their berries hangs on bare stems. Late cotoneaster produces more berries than other cotoneasters, and somehow manages to keep its berries late into winter.
Holly is not related to firethorn, toyon, cotoneaster or English hawthorn, which are all in the Rosaceae family, although the bright red berries suggest that it should be. Because most holly plants are females that lack a nearby male pollinator, berries can be scarce. Some plants in nurseries are actually two plants together in the same pot, one male and one female, to ensure adequate pollination and berry production. Deciduous hollies are unfortunately rare.
Most of the brachyscome found in nurseries nowadays are the annual Brachyscome iberidifolia. Perennial species are rare. The name is still often spelled as ‘brachycome’, without the ‘s’, as it had been spelled for decades. Although it is a warm season annual, brachyscome is also popular now because it can bloom better through the locally mild winters than the warmth of mid summer.
The blue, lavender, pink, yellow or pale white flowers are like tiny aster flowers. The finely textured foliage forms soft mounds about a foot deep, or mixes nicely with sturdier plants. Brachyscome might work better as a component to urns of mixed annuals rather than as a uniform bedding plant. It likes full sun exposure, but tolerates a bit of shade. Deadheading promotes continued bloom.
Like euryops daisy, sweet pea shrub and New Zealand tea tree, the blue hibiscus, Alyogyne huegelii, blooms whenever it wants to, even if it wants to bloom sporadically through winter. It should bloom more abundantly in phases though spring and summer, but even that is difficult to predict. The three inch wide flowers are lavender blue, but can be rich purple or white. Pink is very rare.
Young plants can grow quickly but sparsely. Lanky stems can be tip pruned after a spring bloom phase to promote branching and improve density. Growth slows with maturity. Plants can get five feet high and wide in their second year, but might never reach the eaves. They like full sun and shelter from wind, but should not mind a bit of shade. Established plants do not need much water.
It is probably no coincidence that certain berries and small fruits are so colorful through winter while colorful flowers are relatively scarce. Like flowers, they want to get others to do something for them. Flowers use color, aroma, flavor and sometimes even texture to attract and reward pollinators. Colorful berries and fruits do the same to attract birds and animals who disperse their seeds.
There are not many colorful flowers blooming in winter to distract anyone from colorful berries and fruit. Those who want them are pretty intent on finding them anyway. There is not much else for overwintering birds to eat. Squirrels probably have plenty of acorns and nuts stored, but might enjoy a few berries too. No matter how abundant they are, there is serious competition for berries.
Most types of berries and small fruits that are so colorful through winter contain tiny seeds that get eaten along with the fruit. In this manner, the seeds get taken away from their origin as easily as birds fly away. They then get dispersed as birds do what birds do (that can be so annoying on a freshly washed car). Digestion only scarifies these seeds, which might not germinate otherwise.
This all might be much more information than necessary for home gardening. All we really need to know is that there are several plants that can produce colorful berries through winter while other color is limited. Although, it might be useful to be aware that these colorful berries are likely to eventually be depleted by the birds and any other wildlife that they are intended to be appealing to.
Then again, winter berries are popularly grown specifically to attract birds and wildlife to the garden. Either way, if berries are grown for their color or to attract birds, they have the potential to be messy. Those that do not get eaten eventually fall onto whatever is below them. Those that do get eaten fall (in ‘another form’) all over the neighborhood, and of course, onto freshly washed cars.
Coincidentally, most plants that produce colorful winter berries are related. They are of the ‘rose’ family, ‘Rosaceae’, and produce similar ‘pomme’ fruits that look like minute apples. Firethorn (pyracantha) is the most colorful and prolific. The various cotoneasters, including some low growing ground-covers, are similar, but not so prolific. Toyon is a colorful native that works nicely in unrefined landscapes. English hawthorn is a small deciduous tree.