Sunday 15 December 2019

Sharing the bounty of bright winter berries

WHILE berries on shrubs are a valuable food resource in winter for birds and small mammals, they are also a good provider of colour from autumn onwards. There is a small conflict of interest between garden decoration and the care of wildlife, but most people are happy to share the bounty of their shrubs.

Cotoneaster is an outstanding berry-provider and the most widely grown kind is the herringbone cotoneaster, Cotoneaster horizontalis, often planted against a wall or fence. It carries bright, wax-red berries after the leaves are shed. The berries are avidly gobbled up by hungry blackbirds and thrushes.

Apart from the herring-bone cotoneaster, there are other good cotoneasters, such as the low-growing Cotoneaster dammeri, which is evergreen with deep red berries and reaches only 20cm or so, not so popular with birds. The widely grown Cotoneaster 'Hybridus Pendulus' is usually offered for sale trained on a stem as a small weeping tree.

Bushy kinds of cotoneaster can be used as large background fillers and also as hedging, such as the deciduous Cotoneaster simonsii and evergreen Cotoneaster lacteus. The hybrid variety 'Cornubia' makes a superb small garden tree or large bush, covered in berries on semi-weeping branches.

Pyracantha is a prolific carrier of berries. Birds like the yellow, orange or red berries because they are small in size and easily swallowed. Like cotoneaster, the berries soften and become more palatable as the winter progresses. It is not unusual to have the bush untouched for months and then cleared of berries in a few days if some hungry blackbirds or thrushes arrive, or a group of migratory redwings or fieldfares appears.

Holly is a good provider of berries, widely grown in gardens and often stripped clear of berries before the turn of the year. Like holly, hawthorn is a native tree, not much grown in gardens, except perhaps in a rural setting. It can supply berries late in winter and many fall to ground where small creatures can get at them.

There are some berried shrubs that birds do not eat, notably skimmia, pernettya and aucuba. Occasionally some finch species in a locality learn that they can get at the seeds in skimmia, and they pick the kernels out, but otherwise these berries last well into summer. Snowberry has white or pink berries, wet and soft inside, like the berries of pernettya, and offering no worthwhile food value for birds.

Sunday Independent

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