Diarmuid Gavin: 'Hope shines through in winter with a wonderful range of winter berries dotted throughout trees and shrubs'
Winter gardens come alive with brightly coloured berries
We are now in the dark, somewhat gloomy months. We're beginning to experience occasional frosty blasts, and parts of the country have even been blanketed by snow. As a result, our gardens can look shrivelled: our perennials have retreated, summer bedding is but a dream, many trees are nude and lawns are damp and vulnerable to damage.
But hope shines through with a wonderful range of winter berries dotted throughout trees and shrubs. Berries ensure the survival of some species through the seeds they contain - which may go on to be germinated and become new plants - and they also provide food for hungry garden birds. And, of course, berries can be brought indoors for decoration in the festive season and act as an indoor reminder of the wonders of the natural world outside.
Holly and its vivid red berries are synonymous with Christmas. In Christian symbolism the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns, the berries the blood of Jesus. At the moment, holly bushes are laden with their crop, which some believe indicates a harsh winter ahead. However, good fruit crops are the result of good weather past, not prophetic signs of the future.
Pyracantha bushes (pictured) are also ablaze with intense displays of orange and red fruit. But look further afield and there are shrubs and trees producing berries ranging from white and yellow through to blue, purple and violet. The snowberry, Symphoricarpos, was once widely planted in Victorian and Edwardian times in shrubberies and as game cover but is no longer popular, possibly due to its vigorous suckering and spreading habit. The plump white fruit is a gift to birds, however, and looks pretty in the hedgerows.
My favourite Cotoneaster is C. lacteus, which has richly coloured berries set against lush green foliage. It's an evergreen shrub which produces small, orange-red berries which aren't appealing to birds or other animals, so they tend to survive on the plant and make a great show overwinter and right through to March. The plant is closely connected to hawthorns and pyracanthas, and all produce flowers that are attractive to insects and bees. Cotoneaster likes soil which is on the dry side and really dislikes any waterlogged soil. It thrives on chalk.
Sorbus 'Pink Pagoda' drips bunches of pink berries which fade to white in winter. It makes a wonderful specimen for a small back garden as it is petite but graceful in silhouette and has great autumn foliage as well. 'Pink Charm' is another good variety with shocking pink berries.
For unusual coloured berries, Callicarpa bodinieri 'Profusion' wins the prize. It goes unnoticed as a shrub for most of the year but come autumn it produces berries of a stunning lilac-purple hue. Best planted in groups for good cropping, it is otherwise known as Beautyberry. Also producing berries in the pink-to-purple colour range is Gaultheria mucronata. Related to the heather family, it needs lime-free soil to flourish and will look wonderful planted amongst its relations such as winter flowering heathers.
Seaside dwellers will be familiar with the sea buckthorn, the hard-to-pronounce Hippophae rhamnoides. This is a great windbreak plant for coastal locations - it is thorny with narrow silvery leaves and glowing orange berries - the silver and orange make a striking combination. Viburnum davidii is so widely planted that we sometimes forget to appreciate its beauty. It has deeply-veined evergreen leaves and where several shrubs are gathered, they will produce vivid blue berries in winter.
The more, the berrier
To propagate from berries, pick them when they're completely ripe and soft. Mash them through a sieve so the pulp goes through and you're left with the seed. Sow in gritty compost, covering seeds lightly and leave outside to germinate. Some may need more than one cold season to get going.