Photos by Brenda Bolton, Jennifer McDonald, Alice Marty
From left: Podocarpus berry, Hearts-a-bustin and Beautyberry and other berry-bearing plants can enliven autumn landscapes.
By BRENDA BOLTON, Mobile County Master Gardener
After relentless summer, the sedate blooms and fading leaves of the fall garden are what nature gives us instead of June’s taxing exuberance, and the creamy tans, grays, muted sages and softening golds soothe with a cooler, quiet hand that I welcome every year. Fall is my favorite season.
But there is one place fall flirts, bright colors winking at us in the sun.
Just as summer’s zinnias, pink tropicals and morning glory blues wane, early fall ushers in the cheerfully bright berries of Callicarpa americana, the beginnings of fat scarlet berries on Ilex vomitoria “Pendula” and Ilex decidua, and the red pods of Euonymus americanus.
These lovely natives’ common names tell their story. Could there be a more beautiful berry than the neon purple of woodland “Beautyberry”? “Weeping Yaupon” describes the cascading berries and pendulous form of this native tree (while the Latin “vomitoria” refers to the use of its fruit to produce a tea said to induce vomiting). “Possum haw” is derived, it is said, from being a favorite small tree the opossum browses, to graze on its hawthornlike berries. Is there a more descriptive name than my favorite, “Hearts-a-bustin,” to capture the strawberry-like euonymus seed pod that literally pops open, like Orville Redenbacher’s best, revealing bright red seeds in its heart?
These natives join time-tested imports to offer a berry buffet to favorite wildlife — cardinals, cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, woodpeckers and bluebirds — and provide winter cover to protect from our rare freezes, and less-rare neighborhood cats.
Who has not caught a flash of creamy rose pods suspended in a row of Cleyera japonica, like fat and cheerful pink spiders? Add to these beauties the fiery berries of Pyracantha, and you could believe fall is complete, but there are so many more.
And, ah, the hollies! Berry colors ranging from golden yellow to deepest red to black: Foster holly (Ilex fosterii), Savannah holly (Ilex savannah), lusterleaf holly (Ilex latifolia), Burford holly (Ilex cornuta “Burfordii”), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Dahoon holly (Ilex cassine) and inkberry (Ilex glabra). What would the holidays be without holly berry stems gracing our tables and doorways? Hollies are one of the most versatile of Southern landscape plants.
Be assured, there is a holly for that spot in your garden, from the dwarfed hollies like Ilex vomitoria, a small native yaupon perfect for foundation beds, to specimen hollies like the weeping yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), to the drought, salt and sandy-soil tolerant inkberry (Ilex glabra) with its subtle black berries. Most tolerate a wide range of soils and are relatively pest and disease free.
Some, like the dwarf yaupons, are perfect for pruned shapes, while others are best left to achieve low-maintenance natural forms. I use only spring and fall sprays of horticultural oil to help them maintain their dark, healthy leaves and reduce white flies and scale that tend to form in shadier locations (they prefer sun). The cardinals strip my lusterleaf holly berries every year before I can fully enjoy them, so I settle for the bright flash of red wings. Remember that with most varieties only the female produces berries and must be planted near pollinator males for bloom and berry production.
As plentiful as the hollies are, the berries of fall are not confined to the Ilex genus, though many of the remaining berry plants offer more subtle colors. My favorites are the dusty blue-green berries of several small trees and shrubs. Native Southern wax myrtle presents stems clustered with blue-toned berries and is reputed to repel fleas and even roaches with its scent.
A 3-foot to 5-foot narrow shrub for shade is the old-fashioned leatherleaf mahonia with its icy blue berry clusters. One of my favorites is the grayish, sage blue of the Podocarpus, often called yew tree. They are lovely in fall and winter centerpieces and blend perfectly with today’s interior neutral color palette. The Podocarpus is possibly more pest and disease free than hollies and just as easy to grow, tolerating sun or part shade.
Find a few of your favorite berry plants at this month’s Mobile Botanical Gardens plant sale and have yourself a Very Berry Fall!
Gardeners, check this out:
What: 26th annual Weeks Bay Native Plant Sale
When: Oct. 11-14 (Thursday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
Where: Safe Harbor at Weeks Bay, across U.S. Highway 98 from Reserve Interpretive Center
Featured: Native trees, shrubs and perennials
What: Market On the Square (Look for the Master Gardener tent for gardening info)
Find: Local produce, homemade bread, jams, preserves, honey, crafts, music
When: Saturdays, Oct. 13 to Nov. 17 (7:30 a.m. to noon)
Where: Cathedral Square, 300 Conti St., Mobile
What: Mobile Master Gardeners Lunch & Learn
When: Monday, Oct. 15 (noon to 1 p.m.)
Where: Jon Archer Ag Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Speaker: Peter Toler, Certified Arborist, city of Mobile
What: Mobile Botanical Gardens Fall Plant Sale
When: Oct. 19-21 (Friday and Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
Where: MBG MarketPlace, 5151 Museum Drive, Mobile
Featured: Best plants for your Gulf Coast garden
More Info: MobileBotanicalGardens.org or call 251-342-0555.
Master Gardener Helpline: 1-877-252-4769 or send your gardening questions to email@example.com.