Hide a Berry Treasure Around Your Home

By planting shrubs and trees that yield fruit in warmer months, you'll add beauty to your garden and support a range of wildlife species

  • Michael Lipske
  • Feb 01, 1996

Look at your yard this time of year and, like gardeners in many parts of the country, you may see colorful spots and splashes of red or orange—the berries of hollies, pyracanthas and other shrubs that hold their fruit long into winter.

In many regions, decorative berries are as much a part of the cold months as snow. But you can make berry season last even longer—and serve up a succession of edible fruit for birds—by planting some of the many shrubs and trees that yield berries in warmer months. "By doing so, you'll add to the beauty of your garden, and the high-sugar or fat-rich foods sprouting from your plants will be appreciated by a range of songbirds," says Craig Tufts, manager of the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat program.

Biologists call such berries "soft mast," distinguishing them from hard mast crops like acorns, hickories and other nuts. "Summer berries tend to be juicy, high in sugar, and they tend to go through the birds quickly," says Tufts. That may be a reason not to plant a red mulberry tree too near your clothesline or driveway.

Summer berries are also the ones people find most tasty. These include sweet blueberries and the amelanchiers (shrubs or small trees also known as shadbush or serviceberry, the fruit of which is favored by songbirds). People who love elderberry pie and elderberry wine have to compete with birds, as well as with raccoons and opossums drawn to this shrub's purple-black fruit.

Fall berries ripen from late August through October. "They tend to be a little bit drier and have a higher fat content," says Tufts. "They permit birds to load up on fat for long migrations." If you can make room in your landscape for one or more of the many varieties of dogwoods, magnolias or perhaps a sassafras that produce early autumn berries, your yard will have the appeal of a good restaurant on the interstate for migrating birds.

And what about winter? Certain plants, among them hackberries and the junipers (such as red cedar, a juniper tree that colonizes dry rocky fields from Canada to Florida) are valuable because they hold edible fruit during the cold months. Junipers do triple duty for wildlife. They provide food for cedar waxwings, evening grosbeaks and many other birds (who seem not to mind that the juniper's "berry" is in fact a fleshy conifer cone). Junipers also offer thick protective cover from predators and are important bird-nesting habitat. Prairie warblers often lay their eggs in nests tucked among juniper boughs. Later in the year, yellow-rumped warblers overwinter in the same trees and feed on the fruits. Like junipers, evergreen species of hollys provide year-round shelter for birds, and their brightly colored fruits are popular with thrushes, mockingbirds and yellow bellied sapsuckers.

Sumacs, small trees or shrubs found across the United States, are another survival food for wildlife. Seldom a first choice for birds, the plant's popularity soars by late winter when its fruit clusters are one of the few foods to be found.

Your garden's palette of berry plants will vary according to where you live. Southern gardeners can seek out native beautyberry, with its purple fruit that appeals to mockingbirds, and the evergreen cherry laurel that lures robins. Wildlife gardeners in the Northwest can turn to native berry plants such as salal, madrone and mahonia. The Southwest's prickly pears and other cactuses produce fruits sought by many kinds of birds as well as by chipmunks and other mammals. In the Northeast, hollies, junipers, mountain ash and pin cherries are good berry producers.

Most berry plants are easy to grow. Ask a garden center representative or consult a shrub or tree guide for the names of species that are hardy enough to thrive in your area. You should also gather information about how much water and light a specific plant requires. Broad-leaved evergreens (like hollies) usually prefer shady locations. Junipers crave lots of sunlight. So do most deciduous shrubs and trees.

If you live in an area where winters are cold, plant shrubs and trees in early spring. That way, your new arrival has several warm months in which to become established in your garden. In warm regions, where baking summers kill more plants than do winter frosts, you should probably plant in the fall. All new plants need some tender care at first: Water deeply during hot, dry spells, and in winter mound some mulch around the base of the plant's trunk to guard against soil freezing.

There are other berry plants, otherwise known as weeds, that come to your garden with no help from you. Tufts urges a second look at what he calls the "ugly plants." Depending on how tolerant a gardener you are, weeds we usually rip from the ground at first opportunity—even poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac — may merit a spot in your backyard berry patch.

Sapsuckers, hermit thrushes, downy woodpeckers and dozens of other birds feed on the telltale white berries of poison ivy. Contrary to the fears of many gardeners, wild grape vines (and vines of Virginia creeper, another important wildlife food plant) do little harm to trees. "If your lot is big enough to accomodate large trees," says Tufts, "let the vines climb them."

"Uglies," including late-summer berry producers like pokeweed, keep sprouting for a simple reason: Birds propagate the plants by eliminating undigested seeds that were hidden within tempting berries. Although the birds' garden labor is unintentional, it ensures the reproduction of plants they find tasty. If you want to lend a hand to the process, just look the other way when a berry-bearing weed flourishes in some discreet corner of your yard.

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