What We Lose in Flowers, We Gain in Fruit
It’s that time of year again. Summer is fading, and the nights are getting longer. Our perennials and shrubs are beginning to lose their grandeur and will start losing their flowers and leaves. But do not fret. All the work and persistence of our pollinators have been a success. The fruits of their labor are now putting on a show.
Some of the most splendid displays are from our very own native plants. I think my favorite is winterberry (Ilex verticillata) with its bountiful red berries that cling along their stems. A deciduous holly, it loses its leaves in fall. Most hollies are dioecious, meaning they need a male plant nearby in order to pollinate a female plant.
Winterberries tolerate wet soils. You can see them in their natural habitat near wetlands and along roadside ditches. The berries are not edible to humans, but they make a wonderful meal for numerous bird species. Their roots can help mitigate soil erosion too as they tend to form colonies in wet conditions.
Winterberries have numerous cultivars available at nurseries. The straight species can tend to grow rather large, but smaller, compact versions are available. Visually stunning when planted in mass, this native shrub is hard to beat. I tend to plant them in front of an evergreen hedge so the berries can pop in the wintertime.
Another native knock-out is beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). This medium to large shrub has arching branches that are filled with clusters of purple berries. It’s so unique in the landscape that your eyes are drawn to it when in full display.
Beautyberry likes well-drained soils and prefers sunny areas of the yard. Once established, it’s a fast grower and can take a nice pruning if it gets unwieldy.
When I was in school learning about our diverse array of plants, we went on campus walks with our professor who would pick out the shrubs we were learning about as we passed by them. When we strolled next to the beautyberry, she said that the berries were full of vitamin C.
My friend and I popped a few in our mouths without hesitation. Our professor then finished her sentence, saying they were not edible and eating too many will make one very sick. The more you know.
Let’s talk about an edible fruit native to our Delaware region, American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). I came across a grove of them in the Prime Hook area. They look somewhat out of place in our region, but they are definitely native, and oh, so tasty. Lots of wildlife like them too, so one needs to be quick to catch them when they are ripe. The tree itself looks stressed this time of year, especially along the coast, due to battering winds and storms.
They were growing next to another local favorite, beach plum (Prunus maritima). These go even quicker than the persimmons with the critters. Marble-sized, purple fruit hangs from the branches. Jams and jellies are a wonderful creation using this fruit. Both the beach plum and persimmon like well-drained soils and can tolerate sandy soils, as evidenced by their presence along our coastal dune areas. Provide full sun for best flower and fruit production.
I hope you try your hand at some of our native plants, providing a colorful display of berries in the autumn, and not just flowers in the spring and summer. Make your garden a three-season splendor and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Stay well, and let’s garden together.
Eric W. Wahl is a landscape architect, artist, and President of the Delaware Native Plant Society.