When seasonal songs are sung and greeting cards are mailed, boughs of holly loom large in holiday lore. The shiny green leaves, with their comely points and pretty red berries, combine to create a cheerful symbol of the holidays.
But look around, and it’s easy to find plenty of other plants and trees decked out in wintertime berries. And though not all are as colorful as the iconic holly, they add variety to landscape plantings, and many provide food for hungry wildlife in times of scarcity. Some of the following plants may already play a role in your garden, and others can join the cast. All you have to do is plant them.
Covered in heavy clusters of orange-red berries on its arching stems, Pyracantha, or Firethorn, makes an arresting addition to the home garden over late fall and winter months. The berries follow billows of white flowers that bloom in the spring, endowing the plant with year-round interest. Birds find the berries delectable and utilize them as an important food source during lean winter months. Pyracantha can do well after being cut and, therefore, can be used in floral arrangements or wreaths. But beware: Thorns are common and can be a menace if care is not taken.
Locally, we prize Indian Hawthorn (Raphiolepis indica) for its leathery leaves, mounding growth habit and lovely pink or white spring blossoms. But adding to the shrub’s appeal are the blue-black berries that follow the blooms. Birds enjoy eating the berries, but they are considered too astringent for human consumption without cooking.
The most controversial trees common to our area may be the Chinese tallow, or Triadica sebifera, whose pointed oval leaves turn deep oranges, purples and scarlets in the fall. Because the species is invasive, it is a concern along the Gulf Coast. But in China, it has been cultivated for 1,500 years for its commercial uses. Soap, lamp oil, paint and even transfat-free shortening have been developed there using oils from the waxy seed coatings and the seeds themselves. At the LSU AgCenter, professor Gary Breitenbeck is researching the biodiesel potential of the trees. A single mature tallow tree can produce as many as 100,000 seeds — a boon for birds and, if harvested rather than allowed to fall to the ground, a potentially valuable renewable energy resource.
Heavenly bamboo, or Nandina domestica, has long been a well-loved landscape plant in Southern gardens. Although the shrub is evergreen, its leaves change colors — sometimes rather dramatically — before new leaves come in. Nandina bears vivid red berries, but they are for looks only, not consumption, as they are toxic. Nandina can survive drought and other harsh conditions with little in the way of care, but can also become invasive in some environments.
If you have plenty of shrubs and are looking instead for a small tree to add to your landscape, Cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana) is a versatile choice. It can be trained into a hedge or cultivated as a tree and its white flowers yield blue-black fleshy fruit that attracts birds. Crush a leaf to appreciate the cherry scent, but avoid ingesting the leaves because they can be toxic.
The most stunning of all may be beauty berry, or Callicarpa Americana, a shrub that bears tightly clustered bunches of purple berries on its stems, nestled at the base of leaves. Native Americans used parts of the plant for medicinal purposes, and others employed crushed leaves to repel mosquitoes. Forty species of songbirds rely on the berries for food, a bonus if you like to hear birds singing (and who doesn’t?). Displaying purple berries in vases at Christmastime ties beautifully to the symbolic color theme of Advent.
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about houses and gardens. Contact her at email@example.com.