Colorful berries brighten winter gardens and feed birds

There's not much color in the winter garden with bare twigs, dead leaves, brown ground and monochrome landscaping. The smart gardener plans for this and uses evergreen trees and shrubs to add a bit of texture, variety and interest to the yard. The very smart gardener also makes sure that colorful winter fruits are part of the plan as well. This serves two purposes: it brightens up the gardens and attracts wild birds.

Many gardeners also provide bird feeders for our feathered friends and bird-feeding is one of the most popular hobbies enjoyed world-wide. It is easy to supplement the purchased food with fruits and berries on the plants that grow in the garden, so why not make landscaping choices with this in mind? The fruiting shrubs and trees provide winter interest and give the birds a source of food and safe cover. You will find that more birds will visit the feeders if they have secure places to rest and roost.

evergreen holly leaves with red berries

Hollies for late winter color

Hollies (Ilex) are a large family of trees and shrubs that produce berries that stay on the plants in the winter and are probably the first plant most gardeners think of when someone mentions winter berries. Birds will eat them, but only when most other sources of food have been exhausted. They have few sugars and very little fat and those things are vital to a wild bird's survival. Apparently, there are many other fruits that taste better to them, so they save those for last. This means the colorful fruits hang around most of the winter and brighten the landscape, so they serve two purposes, garden color and eventual food for the birds. There are many varieties and species of holly with berries red, white, yellow, pink and black, so research the type and growth patterns for the area you wish to plant. Some hollies are bushes, suitable for foundation planting, others grow into trees that should be situated well away from structures. Plant hollies in early spring in slightly acidic soil with at least 8 hours of sun each day. They prefer well-drained soil, but plenty of moisture. These conditions will result in the most berries.

dogwood berries and leaves

Dogwoods for autumn color

Dogwoods (Cornus) are another common garden plant that produces berries attractive to birds. In fact, they seem to prefer them to many others. This makes them one of the first berries to disappear. The dogwood berry has quite a bit of fat and sugar which makes them preferable to less nutrient-rich fruits. Many non-migrating, insect-eating birds turn to fruit when their bug of choice is unavailable. There are several species of Cornus and many are native to North America. Most have red berries. However white, pink, yellow and black ones are also available for contrast in the garden. They range in size from short, ground-cover plants to medium sized trees, so there should be one that grows well in your region and location of choice. Dogwoods like well-drained slightly acid soil and sunny conditions. However they can use a bit of afternoon shade in the southern parts of their range. Dogwoods have the added bonus of spring flowers and colorful autumn foliage, so gardeners count them as a year-round asset.

cotoneaster berries on plant

Cotoneaster berries appeal to many species of birds

Cotoneasters are Asian natives, however they are widely grown world-wide for their easy care and attractive berries. Birds adore the fruit, however this poses a problem in some areas. Some Cotoneaster species are considered invasive in various parts of the world, so be sure to check to make sure there are no invasive restrictions on this plant before adding it to your garden. The birds love the berries and spread the seeds far and wide. There is a variety for just about any application. From low-growing ground covers to large shrubs, over 10 feet tall. They like fertile soil, sunny conditions and ample water, however they can withstand drought once established. If a cotoneaster needs pruning, it is best to remove the offending branch at the base of the plant, they aren't as attractive if sheared.

sumac berries

Sumac berries appeal to small songbirds

Sumac (Rhus) is a shrub or small tree native to most of North America. There are a number of species and a few commercial cultivars. They are noted for having some of the most vibrant autumn color in the world. The scarlet leaves are like beacons along fence rows and the edges of woods in early autumn. They also produce small red berries that have a bit of fuzz on them, but birds enjoy them anyway. Sumacs tolerate just about all adverse conditions. They don't care about soil fertility, ample water or afternoon shade. They bloom in early summer and the blooms attract bees, butterflies and all sorts of insects. Sumacs do best when planted in groups as they have a long, lanky silhouette and clumps look more attractive than single plants. The tiny berries remain long into winter and small songbirds like chickadees, goldfinches and sparrows find them very tasty. Just remember that the berries that the birds do not find will probably result in seedlings the next spring. They are North American natives so are not considered invasive, however that doesn't mean that they do not produce seedlings. The seedlings are easy to remove and the birds get most of the seeds anyway. I have less than a dozen seedlings to remove each spring, so there shouldn't be much of a chore to keep things neat.

Learn about invasive plants

These are just a few plants that produce winter fruit that are attractive to birds. The list is almost endless. Consider crabapples, wintergreen, native honeysuckles, junipers, chokecherries and roses that produce hips. The more winter fruit in your garden, the more birds you'll see at your feeders and the more interesting your winter landscape will look. Just remember that fruiting plants produce seeds and the birds will spread these seeds all through their habitat, so it is important to learn about the non-native invasives of your region. They are often still available at nurseries and big box stores, so do not assume that if you see it for sale that it is not invasive. Thousands of invasive plants are sold every year through trusted vendors. It is up to you to educate yourself about potential problems and avoid contributing to the environmental mess that invasive plants create.