Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Winter Fruit for Backyard Birds

Winter Fruit for Backyard Birds... and Gardeners!
Actually, let's make that year 'round fruit for all!

Here in the Northeast, we gardeners are constantly seeking plants to enhance our landscape, while providing a food source for our native, non-migratory birds. The returning migratory birds have a wide variety of fruits and berries from which to dine, all spring and summer; however, the winter menu for year 'round residents is considerably less varied. While many of us offer supplemental feeding with seed and suet, a well-planned landscape provides a significant source of nutrients.  As the snow cover melts away, we're left gazing at the dreary browns and grays that precede spring.  What better means to brighten a dreary late winter than with golden, bright red or glossy black berries?

Ilex verticillata 'Winter Red'

Recently, with my nose pressed to the frosty windowpane, watching the daily dinner crowd at my feeding stations, I resolved to introduce more winter fruit into the home landscape. Looking out at the other backyards, sloping down to our swamp, it occurs to me that not much thought is invested into providing for wildlife, nor to the beautification of said yards. With a strong horticultural background, years spent within the "green industry" and a love of all creatures great and small, it stands to reason that my landscape design ideas always include plants that meet the needs of backyard wildlife. My winterberry, Ilex verticillata 'Winter Red' (a deciduous member of the holly family) has provided fabulous bright red color since early fall. It's been as much a highlight of snowless winters, as it has for snow-filled seasons... right up until the mockingbird and his cohorts polished off all the berries. (One male verticillata is necessary to pollinate the female, which bears the fruit - the male will pollinate a number of plants, located within the general area.) I hope to add about three more female winterberries this spring.

Winterberry is handsome from the time it starts to ripen,

right through the dull days of winter.
Year 'round residents, like this mockingbird, relish the 
scarlet berries and add to the visual interest!
More berries for color, winter interest and bird rations? Try Ilex meserveae 'Blue Princess'... this handsome evergreen holly has glossy, blue-green foliage and generous clusters of bright red berries - again a male specimen will provide pollination for these colorful fruits. These, too, are relished by fruit-eating birds. My 'Golden Girl' holly, with its yellow fruit, seems to be left for my viewing enjoyment - I have yet to see the birds eating from this plant. 'Hetz' and 'Robusta Green' upright junipers both produce bluish-gray berries, a particular favorite of mockingbirds and blue jays. All the birds, especially the cardinals, are quite keen on Viburnum trilobum (American Cranberry Bush) and V.t. 'Wentworthi' (Wentworth Cranberry Bush). A mature, well-fruited specimen will provide enough berries for fall and winter dining, with enough left over for the returning catbirds and robins.

 Ilex meserveae 'Blue Princess'

From summer through the long winter, these wonderful 
hollies grace the landscape and feed the birds.

 Shake it up with golden accents!
This Ilex meserveae 'Golden Girl' is spectacular.

The blueish-gray berries of upright junipers provide
a nice landscape note and more food for the birds.
Blue jays are especially fond of these!

 American Cranberry Bush ~  
Viburnum trilobum 'Wentworthi' (Wentworth Cranberry Bush)

This particular variety of viburnum is handsome 
from late summer through winter.

If any of the persistent fruits remain uneaten come spring,
the returning migratory birds will polish them off
upon their spring arrival.

Now, there are many other fruiting plants of interest to gardeners, backyard birders and birds.  In most cases, these are so attractive, that homeowners include them for their great beauty and multi-seasonal features.  Coincidentally, the following examples are a prime source of sustenance for backyard birds.

Rose hips, relished by certain birds and squirrels.

Cranberry Cotoneaster, Cotoneaster apiculata, has summer/fall
fruits that sometimes last until early winter.  In spring, this
semi-evergreen is covered with tiny, double, rose-like blossoms.

Black chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa 'Autumn Magic'
has shiny black fruit that usually persists until late
winter/early spring.

'Rosy Glow' barberry has ample fruit, borne well
into winter.  Do not look for barberries at Massachusetts
garden centers... the state has banned the sale of these
plants, because of their invasive nature.  (But birds continue
to feast on the fruit of such "grandfathered" existing plants.)

On a personal note, I have never witnessed a "volunteer" of
either the 'Rosy Glow' or 'Crimson Pygmy' hybrids
in my own gardens.

Typical foundation or hedging specimens, these
upright Hicks yews, Taxus media 'Hicksii', have a
berry that appeals to cardinals, among others.

The unusual fruit of Cornus kousa, the Korean dogwood,
attracts a variety of birds and can even be used
for making jelly.

Cornus alternifolia, or Pagoda dogwood, has delicate spring
panicles of creamy white, followed by blue-black fruits
in late spring/early summer.  While all the birds are
interested in this early-season harvest, the flock of Eastern
Kingbirds shows up right on time and devours the
remainder of the crop, every year.

Wild river and fox grapes carpet the ground and form
canopies in the trees of our local wild areas. They provide
an autumn feast for birds and wildlife. 

Likewise, with the rambling, cultivated
backyard Concord grapes.

And, speaking of backyard fruit, let's not forget to share
some of those everbearing golden raspberries
with our feathered friends.

Plant a few extra canes ~ there will be plenty for all!

Don't forget the everbearing and
July-bearing red raspberries!

Or, the blueberries!  Although birds are much more voracious
when it comes to this fruit.  Leave one or two bushes without
protective netting, so they can can partake of the bounty, too!

Sprayed and unblemished, or left to nature's care, all
apples provide a welcome feast, come September and October.

This old-fashioned Dolgo Crabapple is a fruiting variety,
which has been bearing since the 1930's.

Once prized for jelly making, the sizable fruit is now
left for the enjoyment of birds and backyard critters.

Prized for its ornamental characteristics, this flowering crab
is a compact variety called 'Tina'.

Similar to the Sargent flowering crab, it produces an abundance
of lush, spring blossoms.

All autumn and well into the winter, these persistent fruits
add color to dreary off-season landscapes, while providing
long-term sustenance for the birds.

 In the wild areas adjacent to my environs, grows this inviting berry.
The birds delight in this treat and readily devour these soft berries.
We, our children and pets cannot digest this poisonous fruit of
the deadly nightshade.  This should also serve as a reminder
that the fruit of two plants we've discussed, is toxic... holly
(both the evergreen and deciduous forms of Ilex)
and yews (Taxus)... just a reminder. 

Lastly, we see a yellow-flowered vernal witch hazel,
Hamamelis vernalis, whose flowers open as early
as February/March.

These copper-colored twisted blooms belong to
Hamamelis intermedia 'Diane'.
There is also a late autumn species,
Hamamelis virginiana, the common witch hazel.

Why include witch hazel in this discussion?
Because of these unusual, woody fruits they produce.

Some smaller birds, predominately chickadees, find this
fruit irresistible.  They dine on them freely throughout the
long winter months... eating only the two-year old fruit.

So, with very little effort, you can be surrounded with winter color... both on the plant and on the wing. Try to develop a landscape that offers natural food sources and you'll be rewarded by a constant stream of backyard visitors. Feeding stations should become mainly supplemental, not the primary food source. Your landscape should include plant material that offers year 'round food sources, shelter, nesting sites, protection from predators and clean water. My guilty pleasure, in the midst of the growing season, is sitting with the dog on the garden bench ~ writing and bird-watching, while the birds cleanup the invading hordes of insects... my kind of multi-tasking!

Deb Lambert ©2011
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1 comment:

Dr. Eldon Everhart said...

I’m glad to see that Aronia melanocarpa is on your list of Winter Fruit for Backyard Birds. Here in the Midwest, birds also do not eat the berries until late winter when most other more palatable food is depleted.

In my garden, I pick the berries as soon as they turn dark purple. But I always leave a few for the birds.

In taste tests that I have conducted, most people like to eat the fleshly picked berries raw. The berries can also be used to make baked goods, jams, jelly, juice, aronia wine, etc.

Aronia berries have been grown as a commercial berry crop in Eastern Europe for many decades. They are now gaining popularity as a new berry crop in North America.

If you want to learn more about aronia, please go to my blog -- Aronia in America or visit my website

Dr. Eldon Everhart