Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
December, 2007
Regional Report

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Berries enhance a winter garden and provide bird watchers with plenty of action!

A Merry, Berry Christmas!

Winter is a tough time for gardeners. The cool-season annuals have all been planted, the spring-blooming bulbs are tucked in, and it isn't quite time to begin dormant pruning. Raking up leaves is about the extent of your chores for the moment, but take a breath, stand back, and appreciate the colorful berries in the landscape right now.

Berry-Bearing Bushes
Cotoneaster (pronounced: Ka-tony-aster), pyracantha, and holly are not the only berry-producing plants in the garden, although they are certainly the most common. Nandina, also called heavenly bamboo, is my favorite berry to use in holiday wreaths and table decorations. The bright red berries are held in clusters that don't drop or shatter like pyracantha, and they don't have thorns like holly.

Look quickly for the cotoneaster and pyracantha because the migrating birds will arrive soon and strip the plants of their colorful fruits. If the berries hang on the shrubs long enough, they will ferment, causing the birds to become falling-off-the-perch drunk.

Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is native to southern Europe but has adapted well to California. It has beautiful red bark and clusters of multicolored 1-inch berries that ripen at different times throughout the winter months. Yellow, orange, and red balls dangle from the sturdy stems, looking like Phyllis Diller earrings. Curious about the flavor, I tasted one and found it slightly sweet but mealy in texture. The birds certainly seem to like them, however.

Mountain Ash (Sorbus spp.) is one of those plants that you would recognize immediately. The leaves are lighter on the underside and slightly fuzzy. The hanging clusters of orange/red berries are a favorite of migrating cedar waxwings. It's a sturdy plant that looks good in the garden and is nearly trouble free.

Bring in the Natives
If bird-watching piques your interest, you are better off planting the native varieties of berry-bearing plants to attract wildlife to your garden. Migrating species of birds have been eating these same varieties of plants for thousands of years and will search them out as they fly overhead.

Toyon (Heteromeles spp.) will be stripped clean when the first flocks of migrating birds appear. Only the stems will be left hanging after hungry robins and purple finches are done with their feasting.

California coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica) is grown for its compact form and tidy foliage, but the berries are a favorite of Western bluebirds. Best of all, established plants require no watering. 'Mt. San Bruno' is an especially hardy variety that will withstand regular garden irrigation, or no water at all!

The blue elderberry (Sambucus caerula or S. mexicana) has a purple berry that birds just seem to love. People too -- elderberry wine, anyone? The berries look as if they are covered in a white waxy coating. Native from California north to British Columbia, plants are resistant to drought and impervious to insect attack. Although not particularly showy, the berries are indeed a blessing to migrating flocks.

Take a walk and look for plants covered with red berries. You will be amazed by the numbers of birds busy within, even in the middle of winter!

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