Autumn and winter are the hardest seasons for most animals, when birds and small mammals need to build up their strength, and berries are a prime source of protein and fat.
We humans, especially those of us of a gardening persuasion, may enjoy eating berries and other fruit, but their primary attraction is their aesthetic quality – their colour and form. Although most of us incorporate some evergreens into our gardens, the majority of the trees and shrubs we grow are deciduous, and it's at the stage when these woody plants are losing their leaves, or have already done so, that berries come into their own.
Countryside hedges are festooned with the translucent blood-red droplets of bryony; hawthorn branches hang heavy with a bumper crop of rich crimson haws. As the leaves begin to fall in parks and gardens, the jewel-like fruits of sorbus and cotoneaster are revealed, their colour glowing in the autumn light. Many will last for months, continuing their sparkling performance deep into winter.
Gardeners grow trees and shrubs with beautiful berries to extend the show and to enrich the increasingly dull and sombre scene of winter. They add another dimension to our gardens − as attractive as the skeletal branches of wintry trees can be, when they’re adorned with glossy berries or vividly coloured fruit, they’re transformed.
At Glebe Cottage, some of the constituents of the native hedge we planted many years ago provide tasty treats. Viburnum opulus, our native guelder rose, bears a heavy crop most years. Crab apples also offer glorious colour. We planted Malus ‘Golden Hornet’, nearly 40 years ago. It was a spindly stick, with a few small branches sticking out, and it was bare – bare roots, bare trunk, bare branches. It's now a beautiful tree and has produced thousands of small amber apples over the years. They last a long time and the birds are never short of a snack.
Any self-respecting garden should also include two Christmas icons: holly and ivy. Both offer essential sustenance for birds are easy to grow.
More on growing berries:
Discover Carol's pick of the best berries, below.
All cotoneasters flower prolifically and most produce copious fruits. There are neat varieties for small gardens, though this one is voluminous. We have a plant on a corner, whose arching branches drape themselves over a path. It is visited by insects at flowering time and congregations of birds at berry time.
Height x Spread: 6m x 4.5cm
Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’
Unexpected but delightful, the beauty berry is a small shrub, which is covered with vivid purple berries in autumn and winter. For a short time they co-exist with the last of the leaves, which are also tinged with purple. After leaf fall, the berries persist deep into winter on the bare, pale wood. With older varieties of callicarpa, you needed several plants to get a good set of berries, but Callicarpa ‘Profusion’ is self-fertile and, as its name suggests, it invariably fruits well.
H x S: 3m x 2.5m
Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’
Sorbus 'Joseph Rock' is an exceptionally striking rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia), with upright branches which give it a neat silhouette after its glorious red leaves eventually fall to the ground. Its amber-yellow fruits, borne in great bunches, persist though, untouched by birds until well into the new year. Unlikely that many will remain untouched, though birds, voles, mice and shrews will usually polish off whatever berries remain.
H x S: 10m x 7m
‘Himalayan honeysuckle’ used to pop up all over our garden in the most unexpected places. Insects love its small, white flowers that are encased in crimson bracts and followed by fat, deep-purple berries.
More like this
H x S: 1.5m x 1.5m
Our native spindle, Euonymus europaeus, has much to commend it and can give its Asiatic counterparts a run for their money. With Euonymous ‘Red Cascade’, the autumn colour is brilliant and the fruits are prolific. They consist of quartered, fleshy-pink capsules that open to reveal vivid-orange seeds that dangle down as they ripen. Grows fine on chalky soil.
H x S: 1m x 60cm
Viburnum opulus ‘Xanthocarpum’
With translucent, amber fruit and golden foliage touched with pink and red in October, this is one of the best autumnal shrubs. The birds would agree, although they’ll leave yellow berries till last. I’ve always wanted to grow Viburnum ‘Fructuluteo’ just so I can say its name and impress people. Its fruits are lemon-yellow tinged with pink, changing to golden yellow.
H x S: 3m x 3m
Rosa rugosa thrives almost anywhere, including on poor, thin, sandy soils (it's native to Japan where it frequents sand dunes). Many varieties of this most accommodating rose have beautiful scented flowers, glorious golden autumnal foliage and fat hips offering plenty of nutritious meals from autumn into winter. The hips are decorative, too, in shades of orange and red.
H x S: 1.5m x 1.5m
The common hawthorn is a boon to wildlife and is a pretty and characterful tree. In spring, its frothy blossom festoons the branches. The flowers are pollinated by bees and hoverflies, as well as less loved insects such as flies, horseflies and bluebottles – the result is thousands of little red or black berries, striking in silhouette
against the bright winter light.
H x S: 6m x 6m