UNITED STATES—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 others are. Some types of English hawthorn are grown more for their bloom or foliar color in autumn. They are deciduous, so their berries hang 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.
Highlight: late cotoneaster
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.
Horticulturist Tony Tomeo can be contacted at tonytomeo.wordpress.com.