Thursday 23 May 2019

Brilliant berries and wintergreen

Pernettya berries
Pernettya berries

Gerry Daly

Pernettya berries do not seem to be attractive to birds, which means they last longer. Otherwise they would have been gobbled down - as has happened to most kinds of autumn berry plants at this stage. That, of course, is success for the plant since the reason for having berries is to ensure wide distribution of seeds in bird droppings.

The berries are much larger than any of the general run of berried plants, about the size of a small cherry. They are brilliantly coloured in shades of deep wine to pink and white. On a sunny day, they carry a lovely shine.

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The correct botanical name of pernettya has been changed to gaultheria, and is now called Gaultheria mucronata. Native to Argentina and Chile, this is a low, one-metre suckering bush that spreads outwards over the years, making a broad bumpy mound. The older stems flower and carry the fruits.

A member of the heather family, the association is quite obvious when the rounded bell-shaped flowers are seen, a bigger version of those of the bell heathers. Like many of the heather family, this species does not like limy soil.

In a limy area, it must be grown in peaty soil along with other lime-hating plants such as rhododendrons and pieris. Or it could have the existing soil adjusted by adding a thick layer of pine or spruce needles, or by adjusting pH with applications of sulphate of iron.

To avoid the lime, pernettya can also be grown in a pot for some years, being small enough in size for that purpose. However, it does like moist, well-drained soil and pot-grown plants can suffer if the roots are allowed to dry out excessively. It could be put into a shady place in summer.

The bush is evergreen with tiny, pointed leaves, wind-resistant and robust. The suckering is usually not a problem but take care to avoid planting small plants nearby that could be invaded by suckers.

A range of varieties is offered in garden centres. 'Mother of Pearl' has pale pink berries; 'Cherry Ripe' has bright cherry-coloured fruits; 'Edward Balls' is male with pretty red young shoots; 'Snow White' is white, as is 'Wintertime'; 'Mulberry Wine' is bright wine-purple.

In recent times, plants of wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, a close relative with bright red berries, have begun to appear in garden centres. This is the plant used to make wintergreen ointment well-familiar by smell to sports people and those with a bad back. Wintergreen contains pre-cursor chemicals to aspirin and was used as a medicinal tea by native people and early settlers. The plant is small and low-growing, perfect for a lime-free rock garden.

Sunday Independent

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