Berries are for the Birds

by Clement Kent

Last fall during my talk "Where the Wild Things Are" I showed slides of some of the wild and cultivated berry plants that grow on our country property. Iíd like to give you here the preliminary results of a survey I made last summer on our cottage lot looking for fruits and berries. Many these can and should be growing in your garden!

In several trips up and down the wild slope which faces Lake Huron, and through the half-wild natural garden on the flat clay above, I found about 30 kinds of fruit or berry plants. More than 75% of them are native to our area. The non-natives include several pear trees, garden raspberries and strawberries (we also have native kinds of both), blackberries, European climbing nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), and the invasive alien species Rosa multiflora.

Rosa multiflora is, in the words of one authority, "a good plant gone bad". Introduced in the 19th century from Asia as a rootstock for flowering roses, and later extensively promoted by government departments for erosion control and wildlife cover and food plants, this beautiful but massively vigorous shrub was already widely distributed when people realized it was out of control.

The multiflora rose has lovely clusters of small white, fragrant flowers in late June. Itís easy to understand the mistake the original proponents of this rose made when you see one covered in blooms and smell its lovely perfume. Its decorative value is increased later in the season by hundreds or thousands of small red hips which are very attractive to birds - too attractive, as it turns out! They carry its seeds about widely, and the seeds may sprout immediately or lie dormant in the soil up to 20 years. The mature plants rapidly grow into an impenetrable thorny thicket which (many scratches and cuts later!) I can personally testify is very hard to remove. Furthermore they will resprout for up to 4 years from roots after cutting, so vigorously that one stem may regrow 3-5 meters in a season (up to 15 feet).

On our property R. multiflora is popular with summer birds more as a hiding and nesting spot than as a food source. I suspect most of the hips are taken by winter residents. We have far too many of these pleasant multifloral invaders. I suspect they were originally planted by a misguided previous owner of the property to try and prevent the lot from falling into the lake, after he vandalously and scandalously cut down the cedars and huge bur oaks which used to anchor the steep slope. To my intense frustration, the rose sawflies which bedevil my valuable rose bushes donít seem to bother multiflora - in fact there seem to be no effective biological controls at this time. I shall have to rely on thick gloves and pruners for years to come.

Growing on, through, and above the multiflora thickets is a more welcome native invader, wild grapes. Anyone who has picked a tempting bunch of these from some wild spot in fall has tasted the terrifically mouth-puckering inedibility of these when first ripe. Itís amazing to think that almost all of the worldís finest wines are now grown on rootstock of american Vitis species. My grapevines (probably V. labrusca, the fox grape) are not uncommon scrambling on shrubs and trees at the edges of clearings in southern Ontario. Although birds and squirrels may eat fruit you or I would find unpalatable, itís interesting to note that wild grapes are like wild apples - after a few frosts the flavour mellows, and by early spring any remaining on the vine are partly fermented. Birds have been known to get quite drunk consuming this natural "ice wine on the vine".

Above the multiflora roses and the grape vines stands a small tree with the interesting horizontally-spreading branches that we usually associate with Japanese or Chinese shrubs like the Pagoda Dogwood. In June myriads of small whitish flowers are held in clusters above the leaves, leading in August to thousands of deep blue-black berries. When they ripen the vicinity of the trees is crowded with cardinals, robins, orioles, catbirds, squirrels, and dozens of other species. The bright red stems on which the berries are held remain decorative for about a week after the fruit is gobbled down. This paragon of fruit production is Cornus alternifolia, the alternate-leaved dogwood. It grows up to 25 feet tall in either sun or partial shade, and is quite hardy right up into zone 3. Donít be misled by the "dogwood" name into planting it for flowers: like most of the shrub dogwoods, the flowers are not the big showy ones of our Cornus florida.

Of dogwoods our garden has many, many species. Cornus stolonifera, the red-osier dogwood, flaunts its deep red stems at the bottom of the slope near the beach. You have seen this growing across Ontario at the edges of lakes, swamps and streams. It make an attractive plant fall through spring because of the bright colour of the stems against the snow, then provides a solid (one might even say stolid) green cover through the summer. In fall the white berries appear. Donít confuse this with the alien species C. alba, which also has red stems and is often sold in nurseries. Our native red-osier dogwood has many good horticultural varieties too; try to get it for winter color in your garden.

There are at least 3 other species of shrubby dogwoods in my garden but as a novice in dogwood identification I sometimes couldnít tell them apart. There are red, green, and purple stemmed species with white, red, or blue berries, and a confusing variety of leaf shapes, hairiness, and twig forms. I really must keep better notes next time! I believe I have C. rugosa and C. amomum and possibly C. drummondi but another season of study is in order.

The viburnums are another large group of shrubs notable both for flower and fruit. Many of us are more familiar with European and Asian species such as the Guelder-rose (V. opulus), and V. sieboldii. Worthy though these may be, itís exciting to realize that we have over a dozen native North American species, most hardy in Ontario, showing a wide range of flower, fruit, and foliage variation. These should be better known to gardeners. A favorite of mine and the birds is Viburnum trilobum, the Cranberry Viburnum. The luscious fruit changes from pale yellow through burnt orange to bright red over a long period in the summer, and hangs on the bushes well into winter (a naturalist I spoke to said he thought it was more palatable to birds after freezing, like the wild grape). This excellent plant tolerates a wide range of soil and full to partial sun. It can grow as tall as 10 feet but can be pruned to a more comfortable size. One of the special pleasures it gives me is its flowers, which have the "lacecap" form - a flat cluster of small fertile flowers surrounded by a showy margin of large white sterile blooms. Viburnums make a good native substitute for hydrangeas. If you like the big fat pom-pom shaped blooms (are my prejudices showing?) viburnums have those; if you prefer the more elegant lacecaps, either the cranberry viburnum or hobblebush (V. alnifolium) will suit you. Fall leaf colour is often quite good too.

Euonymus is another large shrub in which many common cultivars from nurseries are Asian or European. I believe I am right in saying that if a Euonymus is evergreen, itís not native. However, the gorgeous fall leaf colour of our native Burning Bush (E. atropurpurea) has guaranteed it a place in our gardens and birds enthusiastically distribute the fruits about. Watch out - some of the plants sold under this common name will be the Asian E. alata. Strawberry-bush, E. americanus, is not something I have, but is said to be hardy to our zone and to tolerate some shade. It has the peculiarly showy seed capsules that it shares with our native ground cover, Running Strawberry-bush, E. obovata, also quite shade tolerant and does grow in our wild garden. The outer capsule is usually orange to purple and pocked, and opens to reveal a brightly colored orange fruit. These are interesting both for colour and for the very sculptural form. All of these are related to the vigorous native vine Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) which grows in many of our gardens. It can be hard to see the relationship when the white clusters of bittersweet flowers bloom, but when the seed pods open in fall the resemblance is very clear. Be quite sure you plant the native bittersweet species, and not the introduced Asian weed species C. orbiculatus which is becoming a major problem in the United States.

Continuing with the larger shrubs, I have a gold-leafed form of Sambucus canadensis, which is called Elderberry in Canadian texts but American Elder in US texts! One would think they couldnít read the Latin. This I have planted as a screen between our lot and the neighbors and it has obliged by growing 10 feet tall and as wide in 3 years. The pale leaf color acts as a good accent. There are many, many varieties of Elder available in nurseries, including cut-leaved forms and many variations on leaf colour. Of course, if you make jam or wine from the deep purple-black berries you may be content with the vigorous wild variety. Red Elderberry (S. pubens) is a woodland shrub with red berries, occasionally white or yellow. Nurseries may sell you the European S. nigra but why not use our own hardy and trouble-free natives?

Two plants in the garden are either small trees or large shrubs. The Amelanchier genus is a large one with many species, hybrids between them, and confusions. I will arbitrarily and patriotically assume that what I planted was A. canadensis. Variously called Serviceberry, Juneberry, shadblow, and a host of other local names, these hardy shrubs and trees are found throughout Canada. An excellent alternative to blueberries if you donít have acid soil, serviceberries were one of the main pie and jam plants of prairie settlers. In our garden the birds get most of them! The best varieties give 3 seasons of interest, with a profusion of dainty white flowers in early spring, berries in summer, and often spectacular leaf colour in fall. Mine is placed in front of a large clump of cedars, where the spring bloom and fall blaze are highlighted against the dark green of the cedars.

In a sunnier spot grows the Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) planted by my mother-in-law. During its long season of fruiting, there is a constant stream of cardinals, robins, orioles, and other birds to its branches. This species is native to Ontario but becoming rare in the wild; why not plant one in your garden for the many bird visitors it will bring? Just donít plant where the berries will fall onto decks, cars, etc: they stain!

The most majestic fruiting tree in the garden is the Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) which towers at the top of the slope. A native part of our forests, these trees are valuable for their beautiful wood and have become rare as a result. Our biggest one was struck by lightning and struggles to survive, but still produces its clusters of small fruit each summer. I often see waxwings in this tree when the fruit is ripe.

We also have several small Pin Cherries (P. pennsylvanica) whose small fruits ripen later than the Black Cherry. They too are attractive to birds. We donít have any Choke Cherries (P. virginiana), but I well remember one in my last Parkdale garden that made my life difficult by suckering constantly. Although itís attractive to birds as well and the right size for a small garden, Iíd avoid it because of the invasiveness.

Another suckering plant, but one which I tolerate for its glorious fall display and colorful fuzzy red fruit clusters is Staghorn Sumach (Rhus typhina). Plant this one where you need space covered quickly, or plant it in a pot! Did you know itís closely related to Poison Ivy? In fact, itís just about the only species in its genus which isnít itch-prone.

Wolf, coral, snow - do you know what they have in common? Theyíre all native berry plants in the genus Symphoricarpos, with many valuable qualities. Although they are members of the honeysuckle family, the flowers look like the small bells of heathers - pale pink to white in the best known of the group, Snowberry (S. albus). White berries and white flowers often appear on the same branch at the same time, as this shade-tolerant bush can flower through much of the summer. In the city one often sees them with a large number of the decorative berries, but in the country these are quickly gobbled up. Coralberry (S. orbiculatus) gives us berries of what color? Can you guess? Wolfberry (S. occidentalis) is native to the prairie regions and has greenish-white berries. One source says the flowers are quite fragrant.

There are many kinds of currants from around the world. Some of them, and some of the closely related gooseberries, tolerate partial shade quite well. Our property has what I think is the European garden currant (Ribes sativum) growing wild in dappled shade. It doesnít bear vigorously under these conditions but there are always some of the red berries. An interesting native of the prairies is buffaloberry, Ribes odoratum, which is said to be shade tolerant and has beautiful golden fragrant blooms in spring, followed by clusters of black berries. I donít grow this but would like to - Iíve seen related west coast native R. sanguineum decorating B.C. gardens and woodlands in earliest spring and think it a spectacular plant. It may require some winter protection here, although I have seen varieties advertised as being hardier. One interesting one was called Ribes x gordonianum, a cross between the buffaloberry and the west coast species. This is supposed to be quite hardy, and have "raspberry red flowers, highlighted with creamy yellow throats, appearing a salmon color at first glance and cascading gracefully". Has anyone seen it available here?

We have many native perennials that bloom in early spring and provide berries in fall. They are all quite tolerant of woodland conditions (e.g. they need sun in April-May but not later). On our wooded slope we have the springtime fuzzy white flowers of both White and Red Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda & A. rubra) which are almost indistinguishable. Foliage remains until fall, when the porcelain white or bright red berries stand up on their stalks long after the leaves have fallen. Warning! Both plants are poisonous to humans. They probably are one of the many plants that rodents and some birds can eat with impunity but are noxious to us. Donít plant them where young children play.

As bright a red as the baneberry are the tightly packed berries of Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) . Iíve no idea if this is toxic, but it is certainly nibbled quickly enough by mice. Of course the exotic flowers in spring are the most rewarding feature of this plant. Soil moist in springtime is best; leaves die away by midsummer. If this were one of the Asian Arisaema species we would compete to pay $50 for one plant; look for good color forms for $5 in stores in late April or early May.

Also valuable for its flowers is False Solomonís Seal, (Smilacina racemosa). They come in dense clusters of white foam in late May or early June at the end of the leaf stalks, as opposed to the true Solomonís Seal whose paired white bells hang below each pair of leaves. Each has its own merits as a flower, but the summer-long elegant dark green foliage is one of the strong points of both species. In fall, the False Solomonís Seal has clusters of berries which look brown from a distance but are actually a dense flecking of red dots over a cream background.

Iíve by no means exhausted the list of native berry plants you might grow, but Iíve certainly exhausted the list of those in my country garden. A very merry berry to you all!


Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t