Berries and fruits of winter

By Tom Seymour | Nov 04, 2019
Photo by: Tom Seymour Bright red winter berries liven up winter landscapes.

Hardly a soul exists who hasn’t driven down a country road and remarked on the brilliant red berries hanging on leafless branches of a medium-sized shrub.

The plant is winterberry, Ilex verticillata, otherwise known as a common winterberry holly. While most of us think of the form known to Britain, a number of native hollies grace American fields and roadsides and winterberry is just one of them.

Winterberry, hardy enough to survive the toughest of Maine winters, is ubiquitous throughout the Midcoast region. Most of us never notice this shrub, because when berries are not present it doesn’t stand out from the other wild shrubs and tall weeds. But when the bright-red berries form, the shrub becomes a real eye-catcher.

Winterberry, a deciduous shrub, becomes even more attractive once the leaves fall, the berries and stark, bare limbs standing in stark relief to an otherwise drab background.

Holiday Cheer

Winterberry, with a full complement of red berries, practically cries out to passers-by to harvest some berry-bearing twigs. Nothing brightens a holiday wreath or spray more than a few sprigs of winterberry.

For those who might like their own winterberry shrubs, garden centers and nurseries offer a number of cultivars. Remember that winterberry thrives in wet ground where other shrubs may fail. Also, the shrub likes acidic soils, no problem here in Midcoast Maine, where much of our soil tends toward the acidic side.

The wild form grows up to 15 feet tall, but nurseries offer different sizes, including a dwarf type. With the exception of dwarf varieties, winterberry shrubs need pruning, or else they will produce lots of suckers. Do your pruning in spring, removing up to one-third of the branches. Do this annually for a well-formed shrub.

Also note that the berries only form on fertilized female shrubs, so make sure to get at least one male when ordering your shrubs.

The Amazing Flowering Crabapple

My flowering crab apple tree produces thousands of tiny red apples. These are too small even for jelly making, but that’s okay, since the apples, like winterberry, present a striking picture against the grays and browns of fall. The tiny apples persist in winter, making an even more compelling sight against a background of white snow.

Birds love these tiny apples and use them as a source of nourishment throughout the winter, coming back for more until the very last apple is eaten. Even game birds such as ruffed grouse flock to crab apple trees.

Of course, most people plant flowering crab apple trees because of the springtime show of dazzling-white blossoms, which every limb, branch, and twig is loaded. The sight and sweet smell of a flowering crab comes as a more-than-ample reward for the time and effort required to plant a tree.

Here’s an interesting note. Here in the Midcoast region, American robins often stick around rather than migrating. And if they do leave during the worst of a bitter winter, they only go as far as Maine’s offshore islands, only to return during the first warm spell. So in order to keep robins around your place year-round, make sure to plant a flowering crab apple tree.

Eating Apples

Many table-variety apples don’t taste their best until they have endured a period of cold weather. This even applies to those apples people usually pick in September, including yellow delicious, MacIntosh and Cortland.

Apples on my Liberty apple tree have only acquired a sufficient degree of sweetness this last week or so. And what a difference a few weeks make. Earlier in October, the apples were so tart as to be unpleasant to the taste. But now, after some significant, windshield-scraping frosts, they are as sweet as can be.

To test the truth of this, try letting at least a handful of apples, no matter the species, remain on the tree until well into November. The difference may amaze you.

Of course some “winter” apples are specifically bred to taste better after a good, hard freeze. Fameuse, or “snow apple,” persists on the branches through November and even into December. These medium-size, red apples have lots of white incursions, or speckles and are sweet as sugar after going through the freezing process.

Winter Planning

So while winter puts an end to active gardening, there is no reason that the winter landscape should be bereft of color. Just plant some winterberry, or perhaps a flowering crab apple tree. And if you plant standard-variety, eating apples, be sure to plant some long-lasting winter apples such as Fameuse. Do this and you may even look forward to the cold season.

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