UNITED STATES—Some vegetation excels at exploitation of wildlife. All sorts of flowers use color and floral form to attract pollinators. Also, many flowers rely on fragrance or flavorful nectar for this same purpose. Furthermore, many flowers employ a combination of such techniques. After pollination, many species produce fruit to draw wildlife to disperse their seed. This includes winter berries.
Just as flowers appeal to particular pollinators, fruits appeal to particular consumers. Big fruits appeal to animals who eat them, perhaps sloppily, but drop the seed within. Acorns and nuts appeal to squirrels who bury more than they can retrieve. Winter berries appeal to birds who do not digest the seed within. The birds deposit the seed wherever they go.
It is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Birds, whether migratory or overwintering, eat as many berries as they want. Vegetation that provides winter berries benefits from efficient dispersal of its seed. Naturally, such fruits ripen as birds are fattening up for winter. They are brightly colorful to attract hungry birds. They are small enough for birds to eat whole.
Winter berries are actually for the birds.
This is convenient for home gardening. It provides some color after defoliation of autumn foliar color, and prior to spring bloom. It is actually more appealing where cooler weather accelerates defoliation. Also, such color contrasts more prominently against snow within a stark landscape. Within any climate though, such berries last only until birds find them.
For some, birds and squirrels who come for winter berries are welcome. Some prefer the color of winter berries. Ultimately though, the wildlife determines how long winter berries linger. Anyone can cultivate vegetation that produces winter berries. Very few can protect such fruit from wildlife that craves it. Berries rarely last long enough to rot through winter.
Firethorn produces the most colorful winter berries. Various cotoneasters are similar, but with somewhat subdued rusty red color. Toyon develops larger but looser clusters of fruit. English hawthorn fruit resembles that of cotoneaster, but on bare stems. Hollies produce only a few berries. They are dioecious, so need male pollinators which are rarely nearby.
Highlight: Silverleaf Cotoneaster
Its prevalence within a few wild ecosystems suggests that it is native. In actuality, it likely naturalized here only after the Gold Rush. Silverleaf cotoneaster, Cotoneaster pannosus, is native to southern central China. It likely came here with the influx of Chinese laborers after 1848. It was a common component of the original landscapes of Golden Gate Park.
Nowadays though, silverleaf cotoneaster is rare within refined gardens. Modern cultivars and other species are more adaptable. Silverleaf cotoneaster naturally develops broadly outwardly flaring form. Pruning that damages its natural form causes awkwardly angular form. Ironically, undesirable feral specimens often develop the best form without pruning.
Silverleaf cotoneaster can get more than 10 feet tall, and nearly twice as wide. Removal of old trunks to their bases promotes more vigorous new growth. Alternatively, removal of low growth promotes taller tree form on arching trunks. The small camo green leaves are unremarkable. The copious red berries that ripen for autumn are very appealing to birds.
Tony Tomeo can be contacted at tonytomeo.com.