Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
December, 2000
Regional Report

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Native red chokeberries add long-lasting color to the winter garden.

Berry Those Doldrums

I hate to say it, but the winter garden can be a bit dull. Gone are the bright annuals, the flashy roses, and the rich perennials that contrast against the predominant shades of green we enjoy so much during the growing season.

So what's left for us now in midwinter? A quick look out the window shows some brown sticks, some craggy tree bark, and a few slightly battered evergreens. Without snow, we see a preponderance of browns and neutrals. With snow, we see an expanse of plain white.

Berries in Winter

My midwinter eyes are hungry for color. One way to get color is by planting shrubs that produce colorful berries. Berries are bright enough to pop right out of the dreary winter landscape. They provide sharp contrast and lots of cheer, in addition to feeding the hungry birds.


Firethorn (Pyracantha) is a favorite berry-bearing shrub for winter interest. This popular shrub provides heavy sets of striking berries, usually in shades of orange, but ranging from golden to pumpkin to nearly red. During the fall and early winter the berries are spectacular, drawing the eye like a magnet. Occasionally, these bushes are trained espalier fashion to make a dramatic formal tree pattern against a wall. Firethorns are evergreen in milder areas, but here the foliage often looks unkempt (or dead) by late winter.

Winterberry Holly

Another shrub planted specifically for winter garden interest is the winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata). This wonderful native deciduous shrub is noteworthy for bearing sparkling red berries. Its glowing cultivar names such as 'Sparkleberry' are based in fact rather than the plant breeder's wishful thinking. If you opt for a winterberry holly, you will need a male plant matched to your female selection to assure fruiting each year.

Japanese Barberry and Friends

At my house, several shrubs that are not particularly known for their berries make a decorative statement nonetheless. Among those with cheerful "minor" berries are the Japanese barberry bushes (Berberis thunbergii) and the burning bushes (Euonymous alata). Of course, you will be able to see these berries only if you leave your bushes untrimmed.

Last but not least, my favorite berries in the garden right now are the gleaming red clusters of what are technically called pomes hanging on the red chokeberry bush (Aronia arbutifolia). Although these berries are included on many lists of plantings for wildlife habitat, I have yet to see any creature eat them. The berries will hang on all winter, adding dependable color through ice and snow, to be followed in spring by small white flowers. The foliage of this virtually care-free shrub stays a healthy green all summer and turns a rich red in the fall. The variety I like best is well named: 'Brilliantissima'. Just allow plenty of room for this plant to grow, as it likes to sucker and spread - a great habit if you have the room.

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