Hero Image

Marin IJ Articles

Berry bushes can bring splash of color in winter

  • Nanette Londeree
  • Hungry for some color in your winter garden? All you need is a few easy care, berry-producing shrubs.

    Splashes of fire-engine red, pearly white, metallic turquoise blue or amethyst purple can add some pizzazz to your outdoor space and supply much needed food to birds during the coldest months of the year.

    We're not talking about the ubiquitous pyracantha or cotoneaster, but other, underused treasures. There are evergreen varieties, whose foliage is punctuated with brilliantly colored fruits, and deciduous plants that strut their eye-catching fruit like jewelry on bare skin. From neat and tidy little bushes to moderate-sized trees, many are happy with little to moderate water during the dry time of year, and don't need much else other than an occasional trim to keep them in shape.

    If you're after multiseason interest, try the red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia "Brilliantissima"). In spring, lustrous deep green leaves are adorned with showy clusters of dainty white blooms, tipped with pink. Come early fall, the plant will dazzle with its vividly colored foliage and dense clusters of lustrous red fruits. The black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) delivers glossy dark purple fruit, a striking contrast to autumn's wine-red foliage. These plants do best in full sun but can handle partial shade and require little water once established.

    American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is an apt name for this native plant that is valued for its stunning fruits. The medium sized, deciduous, open form plant sports light green foliage and, in spring, small lilac to pink flowers. In the fall the American beautyberry flaunts tight bunches of vibrant jewel like violet purple berries that last into winter if the birds don't get them first. Plant in full sun and provide regular water for the best display.

    The elderberry family (Sambucus) is a treasure-trove of dazzling berry-producing plants, from the bicolored "Aureomarginata" that dons asparagus green foliage with creamy yellow edges, to a star of the garden, "Black Lace." This variety is clothed in finely cut eggplant purple foliage reminiscent of a Japanese maple. Stems topped with flat-topped sprays of creamy soft pink flowers mark the spring display followed by blackish-red berries that entice birds, or the gardener interested in making elderberry wine and jam. "Black Lace" prefers partial to full sun, and will naturally top out at about 8 feet tall but can be pruned into a smaller shrub; it does best in moist soil, although it will tolerate dry soils. Whatever variety you select, harvest only the blue or purple berries; the red berries of other species are toxic.

    Looking for holiday decorating ideas? Fill a container with cut branches of the snowberry shrub (Symphoricarpos albus). The plump pearly white berries adorn branches from late summer through early winter. Named by Thomas Jefferson for its large fruits "as white as snow which remain through the winter making it a singular and beautiful object," this deciduous North American native does best in full sun with little to moderate water.

    If it's evergreen plants you're after, get year round interest with Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifollum). This dense, bushy western native plant can grow to 6 feet tall. It is adorned with glossy, spiny-edged deep forest green foliage that turns burgundy red in winter while new growth is deep bronze. Dense spiky clusters of lemon yellow blooms are followed by blue-black berries in the fall. Reliably deer resistant, Oregon grape thrives best with some shade along with other acid-loving trees and shrubs. Depending on the environment, this easy care shrub can do with little water.

    A reliable favorite of mine is heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica). Don't be fooled by the lacy foliage cloaking this workhorse of a shrub. It tolerates intense heat with little water, and near freezing temperatures. Deer and other pests don't bother it, and it provides a range of color over the seasons. New foliage has varying shades of green; summer heat turns on vivid reds and oranges that deepen to crimson in the fall. Large sprays of tiny cream-colored flowers are followed by strawberry-red berries that persist throughout the winter. And for something different, try N. domestica "Alba" — it sports plump white berries. An added bonus — the foliage and berries make a gorgeous long-lasting addition to floral bouquets.

    Striking metallic turquoise blue berries are unique to Viburnum davidii, a compact evergreen shrub with sprays of pinkish white flowers spring through fall. The handsome, deeply veined foliage is often accented with both blooms and berries over a long period of time. This Viburnum does best in partial shade with other acid-loving plants.

    Most local nurseries carry and can obtain these attractive shrubs — ones that you and the birds can enjoy.