Garden chores are more sporadic and infrequent in November. Rather than deal with constant growth and the cutting back of different plants, I tour the property every other day to see what had faded and needs removal. Today it was the asters, some of the hydrangea and a mandevilla that had entwined itself around a butterfly bush that needed to be cut back and composted. But as more of the garden is removed its subtle winter characteristics are revealed. And one of the more prominent ones are berries.
One often thinks of berries in the late Spring and Summer in the form of strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. Those are the berries that we like to cultivate and eat. The berries for the winter are there for the birds and other creatures who decide like us to stick it out for the cold months ahead. In many ways these fruits are more showy than their earlier season counterparts due to the lack of foliage.
Perhaps the best winter berry to start with is the winterberry, a type of deciduous holly, that in a good year is thrust full of tiny, bright red berries that cluster its stalks sometime covering the branch that holds them. Winterberry is the most colorful in our yard as its red berries redefine the bush for as long as they last giving it a bumpy texture. Some years the berries are removed over the course of a week or so as the birds savor their treat as would a patient child over a Halloween haul. Other years the eating is more of a frenzy that happens in an easily missed moment as I once observed.
Most people don’t think of leaf-shedding winterberries as hollies, which are more associated with the pointy leafed evergreen variety that is central to Christmas decor. We have one in the back of the yard against the fence no doubt torturing the deer whose tongues but not teeth can barely touch this plant. Its berries are hidden among the leaves and while looking similar to those of its winterberry cousin, the fruits are not as thick or dramatic in presentation. Or perhaps that is just my color-blind perception.
In between the hollies, along the edge of the hosta, are a pair of Japanese beautyberries. These Asian imports are similar to their American cousins, but are winter-hardy in Connecticut. For me they are the most showy with clusters of bright purple berries hanging off their thin branches. Last year a warming and then cold snap almost killed these bushes but they came back from their roots this year with a good display. The birds seem not to like them as much as the holly berries and they can persist into February leaving us with a delightful iridescent display against the snow.
Bayberries are the least berry-like fruits of the season. Used for candles, soaps and sealing wax, the berry has a distinctive aroma when crushed. Its grey clustered form can easily be lost against bark and hidden behind its leaves as they stubbornly hang on and drop throughout the winter. They form on last year’s wood so you have to be careful when you prune elsewise the birds (and you) will be in for a berry-less winter.
The last fruit on the trees is not a berry but a crabapple, which is no larger than any other of the berries. They hang from the branches with a longish stem that is more reminiscent of a cherry than an apple. That is not surprising as both apples and cherries belong to the same genus: Prunus. This fruit is perhaps the most fleeting of the season as it takes a strong battering from the birds and weather. By Thanksgiving few crabapples can be found on the tree, as the birds have eaten them on the tree and the mice and chipmunks on the ground.