A feast of berries

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Berries of Nandina domestica

Autumn and early winter can bring a rich feast of berries to our gardens, along with flocks of birds to gorge themselves upon them. The flash of colourful plumage and the comical calls of many of the parrot species seen in Sydney gardens, along with the melodic presence of sleek currawongs, add a unique dimension to our landscape at this time of year. Like autumn-foliage trees, berried plants are best purchased locally and when in fruit to ensure a desirable specimen. Stems of berries provide excellent subjects for autumn floral arrangements.

Many berry-producing plants have the male and female flowers on the same plant, so are certain to bear fruit, but a few have these on separate plants so that at least one plant of each sex is required for berries to occur. Most prefer a sunny site in the garden - though there are a few exceptions - and when deciding where to plant them, it is wise to consider the surface below the plant, as paths and paving may become slippery and messy when covered with fallen berries. The self-seeding habit of many berried plants must also be contemplated, as this can be a negative aspect for those gardeners who are concerned about invasion of nearby bushland by exotic specimens such as Cotoneaster, with its glossy red baubles like doll's-house apples. Children should be discouraged from sampling any ornamental berries, as some can be poisonous.

Auranticarpa rhombifolia, the diamond-leaf pittosporum

Most autumn berries have colours which echo the red, orange and yellow hues of deciduous foliage, and many arrive quite early on in autumn, and so contribute a seasonal colour theme if grown against a background of autumn-colouring trees. Many last for months, even into winter in some cases, if the birds leave them alone. Yellow or orange toxic berries dangle from the branches of the semi-tropical sky flower bush Duranta erecta and its cultivars, which may be trained as a tree or standard or left as a shrub for use as a hedge or screen (ht 2-5m). Larger orange berries smother the domed crown of the diamond-leaf pittosporum or Queensland laurel, an Australian rainforest tree now called Auranticarpa rhombifolia (previously Pittosporum rhombifolium). Growing to 24m tall in its native habitat, it is more likely to be constrained to around 8-10m in a garden setting. The display lasts from March until July and this is a spectacular berrying plant for our mild climate.

Some of the many members of the Viburnum tribe will produce red or reddish-black berries in autumn; however, these are seldom seen as they usually require the planting of separate male and female plants together. A self-fertile cultivar of the guelder rose (Viburnum opulus 'Notcutt's Variety', ht 2-4m), however, does produce its translucent red fruit reliably. Where old-fashioned and species roses have not been dead-headed, their lacy fretworks of almost leafless stems in autumn are often studded with orange or red hips. Rugosa roses are particularly renowned for their large, juicy red hips.

Berries of Ardisia crenata

The coral berry (Ardisia crenata ht 1-1.8m) is a small evergreen shrub from South-East Asia, which enjoys our Sydney climate and produces whorled layers of rich red berries amongst its lush tiers of leathery leaves. The berries last throughout winter, and unusually for a fruiting shrub, it enjoys a shaded position with rich soil. There are also cultivars with white berries. Also suitable for shade and originating in China and Japan is sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica, ht 1.8m), which will produce long-lasting red berries amidst its dainty, vaguely bamboo-shaped evergreen foliage (see photo at start of the blog). It needs both male and female plants for the berries to develop; however, it is possible to buy hermaphrodite cultivars! It is in no way related to the invasive true bamboos.

Close-up of berries of Callicarpa bodinieri

Other berries vary from the fiery colour palette, and one of the most striking is the beauty berry (Callicarpa species). Rather straggly deciduous shrubs in themselves, they produce small lilac flowers in summer, which transform to quaint brooches of glittering purple beads throughout autumn and winter, providing intriguing material for flower arrangements. Chinese Callicarpa bodinieri (to 3m) produces the most abundant fruit. These shrubs should be pruned in spring to encourage new fruiting wood. Several Australian rainforest trees produce attractive autumn berries in this colour range. Luscious, edible pink-purple or white round fruit that can be made into jam cover the branches of the lilly pilly tree (Acmena smithii) in late summer and autumn. Whilst this can be grow tall in its native habitat, like many native rainforest trees it is far more compact in an open garden setting (ht 6-9m). Dwarf forms, such a 'Minipilly', grow to only 1-2m. Also known as lilly pilly, compact Syzygium cultivars (ht 2-3m) have edible white, pink or purple berries. A tree-sized version is Syzygium paniculatum (ht to 15m), which bears large rose-purple fruit. The blueberry ash (Elaeocarpus reticulatus) has deep blue fruit on a tree 5-9m high in gardens. It can be pruned to form a shrub. A much smaller native plant is the midgen berry (Austromyrtus dulcis), which will grow about 40cm tall in sun or part shade and bears edible white berries covered with small blue dots.

There are lots of possibilities for a feast of berries in Sydney gardens!