University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Fall News ArticleTHE RUBIES OF FALL
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
Shrubs with red berries come in handy this time of year for use in
holiday decorations and arrangements, for feeding wildlife, and for
brightening landscapes. Although the well-known American and Chinese
hollies can't be grown in many cold northern climates, other fine
red-berried shrubs are suitable and hardy. Unless noted, these are
hardy to at least USDA zone 4 (-20 to -30 degrees F average annual
The winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a native and deciduous
(loses its leaves in winter) shrub. It is related to the evergreen
hollies, only much hardier. With its brilliant small and shiny red
berries it is spotted quickly in wet areas in fall, even at high
speeds along interstates. Reaching heights of 6 to 8 feet,
winterberry grows well in sun or shade, wet or dry soil.
Like the other hollies, the sexes are on separate plants. If you
want berries, you'll need a female plant and a male plant (no
berries) for pollination. Even then you may not see many berries
before the birds get to them. Over 40 species of birds eat their
berries, including bluebirds, cedar waxwings, brown thrashers,
mockingbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and robins. 'Jim Dandy' is a
good male to pollinate early cultivars (cultivated varieties) such
as the compact 'Nana', 'Sprite', or Maryland Beauty', to the 8-foot
tall 'Stoplight' or 'Jolly Red'. 'Sprite' was a Cary award winning
plant for New England. 'Southern Gentleman' is a good male to
pollinate later cultivars such as the popular 'Winter Red' and
'Sunset'. The male 'Apollo' pollinates the hybrids 'Harvest Red' and
Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is easy to grow and
tolerates many soil types. In addition to the red berries, the
shiny green leaves turn reddish-purple in fall. Birds will eat the
berries, but reluctantly as they are tart. This makes them good for
jams and jellies though. 'Brilliantissima' is a cultivar with even
brighter fruit, while 'Autumn Magic' is a more compact selection
with slightly larger fruits.
Some of the shrub roses produce large red fruits, known as "hips",
in late summer and fall. Some of the showiest are the blueleaf rose
(Rosa glauca), eglantine (R. eglanteria), Moyes (R.
moyesii), and the rugosa (R. rugosa). All are hardy to
at least USDA zone 4 except the Moyes rose (zone 5).
If you want a less known but attractive native shrub, try the
spicebush (Lindera benzoin). When crushed, leaves are spicy
and the red fall fruits peppery. Berries stand out against the
light yellow fall leaves, and arise from the bright yellow flowers
that appear in spring before the leaves. It is marginally hardy to
zone 4, thriving in moist soil and partly shaded woodlands.
Hawthorns (Crataegus) are small trees (15 to 25 feet tall)
with attractive red fall fruits, but most have some drawbacks--
namely lots of diseases and long, dangerous thorns. Exceptions, and
among the best choices with few thorns and good disease resistance,
include 'Crimson Cloud' English hawthorn (C. laevigata),
Princeton Sentry Washington hawthorn (C. phaenophyrum), and
'Winter King' green hawthorn (C. viridis).
A group of low shrubs up to 2 feet high, good for groundcovers on
slopes and rock gardens, is the cotoneasters. Some of the best red
fall fruits are from the cranberry cotoneaster (C. apiculatus)
and related creeping cotoneaster (C. adpressus), rock spray
cotoneaster (C. horizontalis), and the spreading cotoneaster
(C. divaricatus). All have small, shiny green leaves and
pinkish-white flowers attractive to bees early in the season. The
rock spray and spreading cotoneasters are less hardy (zone 5).
Even lower groundcovers with red berries are the bunchberry (Cornus
canadensis) and the bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi).
Both are very hardy to USDA zone 3 (-30 to -40 degrees F). The
bunchberry also has attractive red leaves in fall, and edible
fruits. This native plant needs acidic and organic soils. Another
low native for similar soils, and needing plenty of moisture, is a
red berry that all know—the cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon).
The bearberry is a tough evergreen, tolerating bogs to dry sandy
areas, alkaline to acidic soils, and prefers infertile soils. Don't
confuse bearberry with barberry-- a shrub usually seen on older
lists but no longer recommended. Barberry is listed as an invasive
plant in many states as birds spread its colorful red fruits to
natural areas where they germinate and end up crowding out more
desirable native plants.
For gardeners in warm climates there are even more choices for red
berries in fall, including both deciduous and evergreen hollies.
Heavenly bamboo (Nandina), Japanese skimmia, and firethorn (Pyracantha)
provide bright red color in fall and winter, while the latter can
provide orange and yellow berries as well, depending on cultivar.
While the heavenly bamboo and firethorn are hardy to USDA zone 6
(average low of -10 degrees F in winter), they may survive in
protected areas in colder zone 5. Firethorn often is seen trained
to a wall, or "espaliered", where it can benefit from heat absorbed
by the wall. Skimmia on the other hand is hardy only to the warmer
USDA zone 7, and its berries can be poisonous if eaten in quantity.
Return to Perry's Perennial