Saturday 18 November 2017

Berry-laden shrub will brighten winter garden

Pernettya carries large, cherry-sized berries in shades of wine-purple, pink or white
Pernettya carries large, cherry-sized berries in shades of wine-purple, pink or white

Gerry Daly

A little shrub called pernettya is looking great just now, and will continue like this late into spring of next year when all other berries are long gone. Pernettya carries large, cherry-sized berries in shades of wine-purple, pink or white. It is a member of the heather family with white, heather-like bell flowers in early summer followed by the berries.

Carried in large bunches, the berries are bigger and more plentiful after a good summer, but it is always reliable in producing a good show each winter, the berries looking good against the dark green leaves. This shrub should be much more widely used, but, like so many good plants, it lacks a catchy common name and tends to be ignored. Pernettya was named in honour of an Argentinian botanist and the plant originally comes from that region. And even then the botanical name now is Gaultheria.

Pernettya looks great at a time of year when colour is in short supply. 'Cherry Ripe', 'Mulberry Pearl' and 'Mother of Pearl' are some of the better varieties and have descriptive names. 'Wintertime' has pure white fruits, which is very striking. A low-growing, suckering shrub, it can make a very broad clump. The suckers should be removed if the bush is spreading too far. The leaves have tiny spines at the tips.

Like many other heather family plants, pernettya likes acidic soil and can only be grown on limy soils when there is plenty of organic material added to the soil, or leaf mould is mounded up over the existing soil. It is probably not worth going to the trouble for this plant alone, but if the soil has been altered for camellias or rhododendrons then pernettya can feature too as a low-growing plant. It needs sunlight to flower and fruit well, but could be set in front of taller plants.

The plants generally have either male flowers with pollen, or female flowers without pollen, on separate plants, and it is usually recommended to plant both male and female plants. However, it is rare to see male plants for sale. Although the plants are predominantly male or female, they are not exclusively so, and enough male flowers with pollen are normally produced for berries to be formed.

The plant can produce berries on small specimens and these can be potted up for use in a winter container. Pernettya can only be used as a temporary container plant, and planted out in the garden subsequently. It gets weak and pot-bound when it is in a pot for too long.

Sunday Independent

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