Native Fruiting Shrubs Add Color to the Fall Garden
Earlier this month a record-breaking freeze zapped gardens across the mid-Atlantic, causing flowers to shrivel and leaves to drop—some before they even turned into their brilliant fall color. But that’s all the better to see beautiful fall fruiting shrubs which put on a late autumn display. From the branches of winterberry laden with bright red fruit to the brilliant magenta clusters of American beautyberry, native shrubs have a lot to offer both designers and wildlife.
First, some definition. A shrub is a woody plant that occupies the vertical space in the garden between the herbaceous ground layer and the tree canopy—generally in the 3’ to 15’ range. There are small shrubs and large shrubs, but, for the most part, they max out at height of 15’. They are multi-stemmed, but can be pruned to appear single-stemmed and, unlike trees, they usually reach maturity in a few short years.
An Essential Layer
Shrubs offer a human-scale to landscapes and tame woodsy backyards by filling the landscape at eye level.
“They provide structure,” said Susan Boss, a horticulturist at Mt. Cuba Center. “They’re part of the elements of a good design.” They can also fill in seasonal interest after many plants have gone dormant, Boss said. “Shrubs like winterberry or American beautyberry sit in the garden all spring and summer, not doing much. Then at the end of the season the color they add can carry from all the way in the back of a bed.”
Shrubs also reach maturity faster than trees and because of their multi-stemmed habit and low height, provide great screening at the edge of properties or ease the transition between the backyard and natural areas.
Birds Love It
While many bird species migrate south for the winter, several stay put, having adapted to our landscape and weather even during the chilliest times of the year. Native, fruit-bearing shrubs provide essential food and cover to overwintering birds, keeping them safe.
Cardinals, blue jays, goldfinches, woodpeckers are easy to spot in the backyard and have co-evolved with native plants to weather the winter. While insects are a food source in the wintertime, their activity is limited to the leaf litter and bark of trees. Native birds consume more readily available seeds and fruits.
“The fruit provides lipids and fats to nourish birds during the winter,” said Renee Kemmerer, a horticulturist at Mt. Cuba Center. “Different fruit is available and consumed at different times. Rhus typhina, or staghorn sumac, remains in the landscape until late winter, and the birds will only eat it after it’s gone through a couple of frosts.” Researchers aren’t certain why birds wait to feed on staghorn sumac until late in the winter. “It’s possible that it’s more palatable at that point,” Kemmerer said.
While some birds eat whatever is available, others have preferences. Cedar waxwings, robins, and dark-eyed juncos particularly like the blue-hued berries of eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana).
“These shrubs are more than a grocery store,” Kemmerer said. “They’re safety for overwintering birds.” The multi-stemmed habit of shrubs provides protection from predators and the blistering cold wind, alike.
Kemmerer is currently studying the fruiting shrubs with a team of volunteers. “There’s no single source for when fruits on native plants appear,” she said. Though there are plenty of resources to tell when a plant comes into flower. “Whether you’re a designer or looking to support wildlife throughout the year, when fruits appear and how long they last is important.”
Over three years, Mt. Cuba Center volunteers have observed 26 native plants weekly to find a rough estimate of the native fruit cycle, including when it appears, when it changes color, and when it disappears, likely having been eaten by wildlife. Jehangir Vevai, a longtime volunteer at Mt Cuba Center, has observed the plants in the study for three years.
“I noticed that some years have more fruits than others,” Vevai said. “We know that oaks have mast years—or years where a significantly larger number of acorns are produced—but maybe other plants do, too. One year, the Juniperus virginiana was so full of fruit it changed the appearance of the plant – it looked blue. The next year there was almost no fruit on the tree.”’
More Plant, Less Work
“In terms of a gardener’s perspective, shrubs are easy,” Kemmerer said. “They’re generally easier to maintain and take care of. They require us to go through at some point to manage competition, do rejuvenation pruning—but it’s not every month or every year. It’s a lot less input on our behalf, yet it’s providing more for a longer period of time.”
Shrubs can be rejuvenated through coppicing, which involves cutting the stems all the way back to the ground in early spring, spurring fresh growth.
They are also forgiving in ways that trees can’t be. “You can break them, hit them with a snow plow, all kinds of ‘oops’,” Kemmerer said. “They’ll come back—they’re programmed to deal with the kind of disturbance and damage that would occur naturally, like flooding or deer browse.”
Shrubs are generally less maintenance than perennial plants which may need to be weeded, divided and deadheaded to look great throughout the season. “Shrubs are less maintenance and longer lived than perennials, generally,” Boss said.
To add some low effort, big impact shrubs to your garden, scope a nearby native plant sale, or keep an eye out at local nurseries and garden centers for natives like Callicarpa americana (or American beautyberry), Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’ (Winter Red winterberry), and Viburnum nudum (possumhaw viburnum).
This article originally appeared in the Delaware News Journal on November 30, 2017.