Showy flowers, attractive foliage, bright fall color—these are the ornamental features we look for first when selecting shrubs and small trees for our yards and gardens.
But what about fruit? Though often overlooked, berries and similar fruits can add color to the landscape throughout the year. In shades of white, yellow, orange, pink, red, blue, and purple, ornamental fruits provide extra garden pizzazz.
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Plant fruit-bearing shrubs in groups for maximum color impact, or mix single plants with other shrubs, perennials, or grasses. When selecting a spot in the landscape, think about when the plant’s berries are at their most colorful and where you’ll be sitting or standing when you look at them. For example, a summer-fruiting shrub might be located where you’ll see it from your patio, while one with bright fruit that persists into winter should be in a spot you’ll see from indoors.
Don’t just leave these little gems in the yard, though. Berried branches make colorful additions to indoor bouquets or outdoor container arrangements. Colorful fruit is especially abundant in the fall and combines beautifully with late-blooming flowers and the feathery plumes of ornamental grasses. A few berries dry well on cut stems, providing a long-lasting splash of color. Purple beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) and winterberry (Ilex verticillata) are two of the best—just cut the stems, carefully remove leaves, and place the stems in a dry vase.
While we humans admire berries for how they look, other creatures are far more interested in how they taste. Berries are an important source of food for many birds. In fact, many gardeners plant fruit-producing shrubs because they want to provide tasty meals for their feathered friends. Of course, some fruits are equally coveted by humans and birds, so if you intend to harvest blueberries, serviceberries (Amelanchier), or cherries, you may have to put up netting in order to keep them for yourself.
Here’s a sampling of shrubs and small trees that will provide colorful fruit in your garden:
Forget about old crabapple cultivars with large, messy fruits. Instead, select a disease-resistant cultivar with small, jewel-toned fruit. Crabapples bloom for only about a week, but the cultivars with colorful, persistent fruit provide months of garden beauty. Good choices include ‘Donald Wyman’, ‘Calocarpa’, ‘Red Jewel’, ‘Adirondack’, ‘Snowdrift’, ‘Glen Mills’, ‘Indian Magic’, ‘Molten Lava’, ‘Prairifire’, ‘Harvest Gold’, ‘Sugar Tyme’, ‘Tina’, ‘Silver Drift’, and ‘Zumirang’. All are hardy in Zones 4 to 7.
Mountain ash (Sorbus)
Several mountain ash species make fine additions to the landscape, especially in cooler parts of the country. These small trees sport showy clusters of fruit from midsummer into winter (if the birds haven’t eaten them). Orange and red are the most common fruit colors, but some cultivars have pink, yellow, or white fruits. Many mountain ashes also flaunt spectacular fall foliage. Popular species include European mountain ash (S. aucuparia, Zones 3 to 7), showy mountain ash (S. decora, Zones 2 to 6), and Korean mountain ash (S. alnifolia, Zones 4 to 7, pictured above).
Many dogwoods, both tree and shrub types, put on attractive fruit displays. Birds relish the fruits, so the show may be short-lived. Some dogwoods have bright red pedicels (fruit stalks) that provide color even after the berries are gone. Though best known for their spring blooms, flowering dogwood (C. florida, Zones 5 to 8), kousa dogwood (C. kousa, Zones 5 to 8), and Cornelian cherry (C. mas, Zones 5 to 8) all bear showy red fruits. Pagoda dogwood’s (C. alternifolia, Zones 3 to 7) small fruits turn from green to shades of pink and purple before maturing deep blue. Shrub dogwoods such as red osier dogwood (C. stolonifera, Zones 2 to 8), gray dogwood (C. racemosa, Zones 3 to 8), and Tatarian dogwood (C. alba, Zones 2 to 8) have white berries, sometimes blushed with indigo blue.
You could fill an entire berry garden with the wonderful range of fruit-laden viburnum shrubs. Among the many species, hybrids, and cultivars, you’ll find fruit in shades of brilliant red, orange, yellow, pink, blue, and black. Many of the viburnums bear more fruit if you plant several of them together to encourage cross pollination. Some of the showiest red-fruited viburnum species include linden viburnum (V. dilatatum, Zones 5 to 8), American cranberrybush (V. trilobum, Zones 2 to 7), European cranberrybush (V. opulus, Zones 3 to 8, pictured above), Sargent viburnum (V. sargentii, Zones 4 to 7), and tea viburnum (V. setigerum, Zones 5 to 7).
Many viburnums have fruit clusters in which some berries change color before others, giving each cluster a variety of colors. Species that turn from yellow to red to black include wayfaring tree (V. lantana, Zones 4 to 8), doublefile viburnum (V. plicatum f. tomentosum, Zones 5 to 8), and lantanaphyllum viburnum (V. x rhytidophylloides, Zones 5 to 8). Viburnums with fruit that changes from green to rose-pink to deep blue include witherod (V. cassinoides, Zones 3 to 8), smooth witherod (V. nudum, Zones 5 to 9), and blackhaw viburnum (V. prunifolium, Zones 3 to 9).
Last but not least, several viburnums produce lovely clusters of metallic blue, BB-sized berries in late summer, including arrowwood viburnum (V. dentatum, Zones 3 to 8) and the closely related downy arrowwood (V. rafinesquianum, Zones 3 to 7) and bracted viburnum (V. bracteatum, Zones 5 to 8).
Valued for their glossy green foliage and bright red berries, evergreen hollies are a landscape staple in many parts of the country. All hollies require both male and female plants for fruit production. There are a mind-boggling number of evergreen holly varieties, ranging in size from dwarf shrubs to large trees.
Some of the most popular include American holly (I. opaca, Zones 5 to 9); blue holly (I. x meserveae, Zones 5 to 9); Topel holly, which includes the Foster hybrids (I. x attenuata, Zones 6 to 9); and Chinese holly (I. cornuta, Zones 7 to 9).
Don’t forget deciduous hollies. Though they don’t provide evergreen foliage, their fruit display is all the more spectacular without leaves. You can choose from many showy red- and orange-fruited cultivars of winterberry (I. verticillata, Zones 4 to 8), Japanese winterberry (I. serrata, Zones 5 to 7), possumhaw (I. decidua, Zones 5 to 9), and their hybrids.
The beautyberries provide unique shades—lavender, violet, metallic purple—to the autumn garden and to floral arrangements. Plant several together for better fruit set. These long-stemmed shrubs get a bit rangy but are easy to cut back each year. Look for species and selected cultivars of purple beautyberry (C. dichotoma, Zones 5 to 8), Bodinier beautyberry (C. bodinieri, Zones 6 to 8), Japanese beautyberry (C. japonica, Zones 6 to 8), and American beautyberry (C. americana, Zones 6 to 10, pictured above).
This shrub seems to live to produce fruit. Though not the tidiest of plants (regular pruning will help), firethorn’s abundance of yellow, orange, scarlet, or red fruits makes a colorful splash in the garden. Dozens of cultivars, ranging from 5 to 20 feet tall, are available, including scarlet firethorn (P. coccinea, Zones 6 to 9), Formosa firethorn (P. koidzumii, Zones 8 to 10), and hybrids of these and other species.
when good berries go bad
Unfortunately, some berry-producing shrubs have become invasive pests in parts of the United States and Canada. When birds eat these fruits and deposit the seeds, they contribute to the spread of the unwanted invaders. Plants that are invasive in one region may be well-behaved in another, so check with your area’s Department of Natural Resources, extension service, or other agencies to find out if these or other plants are pests in your region:
• Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii)
• Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)
• Burning bush (Euonymus alatus)
• Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica)
• Glossy buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula)
• Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii)
• Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica)
what’s a berry?
In botanical terms, a berry is “an indehiscent [not splitting open at maturity] fruit derived from a single ovary and having the whole wall fleshy” (American Heritage dictionary). Believe it or not, a tomato is technically a berry. In common usage, though, we apply the word berry to almost any small fleshy or juicy fruit. In addition to true berries, other botanical terms for berrylike fruits include pomes (crabapple, mountain ash, firethorn), drupes (cherry, dogwood, viburnum), and aggregate fruits (raspberry, blackberry). Berried branches make colorful additions to outdoor containers.