Life

The Casual Gardener: Summer sex, naked limbs – there's a lot more to berries than you might think

Berries mark the climax of the growing season for many trees and shrubs. The fruits appeal to humans and birds alike

The berries of Pyracantha 'Orange Charmer' are lit up by the autumn sun

LIKE much of nature, we tend take berries for granted and even many gardeners may not give them a second thought, beyond their taste and visual appeal. But closer scrutiny of the berry's life cycle reveals a natural process that is awe inspiring. It's a tale of summer sex, vivid colours and, in many cases, naked limbs.

Technically, what happens as a fertilised flower withers after pollination is that the ovary grows and forms a fleshy fruit, with the ovules forming the seeds. A crop of berries is the climax of the growing season but while in many ways it marks its end, it is the species' provision for a new beginning in subsequent years.

Berries provide food for birds, which rather than hindering a plant's reproductive process, actually enhances it by distributing the seeds far and wide. Some berry seeds, like those of juniper, will actually grow better after passing through a bird's digestive system, which removes natural chemicals that would otherwise prevent the seed from growing.

Gardeners who take a special interest in birds and providing food for them are best to stick to tried and tested natives, whose berries are guaranteed to prove popular. Rowan, dog rose, blackthorn and hawthorn are best in this regard.

If your choices are dictated more by your own tastes, then you can be a little more adventurous with ornamental cultivars bred from many of our more common trees and shrubs.

Euonymus europaeus ‘Red Cascade', a variant on the native spindle, is one such example. Growing no more than 2.5m, the main advantage of ‘Red Cascade' over its close relative is its autumn leaf colour, a truly spectacular display of vivid scarlet. A second bonus is that it also produces far more fruits than its wild counterpart, each a rosy red capsule containing bright orange seeds.

Cotoneasters are always among the first choices for an autumn and winter berry display. Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia' is especially dependable, producing a generous crop once established. A resilient, comparatively large (up to 3m) tree/shrub, its semi-evergreen foliage provides the perfect backdrop for its large clusters of fruits.

A close relative of the cotoneaster but distinguished by its thorny branches, pyracantha can be used to make a formidable living barrier. The evergreen, climbing variety 'Orange Charmer' responds positively to being trained on a wall or on trellis for screening, while it also makes an impregnable hedge. Suitable for most soils, it produces white flowers in summer and orange berries in autumn. Also worth checking out is Pyracantha Saphyr Rouge (‘Cadrou'), a more upright but shorter red-berried variety suitable for smaller spaces.

The upright crab apple Malus ‘John Downie', which has the Royal

Horticultural Society's (RHS) stamp of approval with an AGM (Award of Garden Merit), is a personal favourite. A deciduous tree with white flowers in spring which, come autumn, magically morph into egg-shaped, red/orange fruits. Prized primarily for its ornamental properties, crab apples from ‘John Downie' can be harvested and used to make jams and wine.

Callicarpa americana or French mulberry are bushy evergreen or deciduous shrubs that are freely fruiting in vibrant colours. The inconspicuous violet, pink or white flowers appear in May and June in clusters. Most prized is Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion' which, as the name suggests, boasts lots of violet berries in the autumn. The leaves are an idiosyncratic shade of bronze-purple in the spring turning golden-purple as they prepare to fall.

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