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Some trees and shrubs are at their best in fall, from the human or bird point of view. It’s a great time to go to nurseries to see what plants look like this month, and notice what berries or fruits they offer to help birds have a better winter. It’s also a great time to plant woody plants, whether you do it yourself or hire professionals.
Then make your choices with full information. In all cases, read the labels or do research about the mature size of the shrub or tree you are considering. Plant them where they never have to be moved or cut back. Life is too short to try to make large plants into small ones – there are other choices for landscape and ecosystem purposes.
As with all gardening, analyze the planting site (light, drainage, soil type, winter conditions, pests) so that you select only plants that will thrive there. Note the specific species and cultivar names so you get what you are shopping for.
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The following are some of the best choices for fall berries or fruits, for the birds and for the beauty.
1. Eastern Red Cedar (Common Native Juniper)
This hardy plant is valuable for birds and has an important place in home landscapes, parks and forests. The natural form (up to 45 feet) is pyramidal, providing nesting and roosting protection for robins, sparrows, juncos and more. Many shorter cultivars are available and still useful.
The blue-gray fruits (technically tiny cones) feed many species, and humans use them in making gin. Do not plant junipers near apples or crabapples as they share apple-cedar rust.
2. Aronia (Black and Red Chokeberry)
These native shrubs offer beautiful fall color, with berries that persist into winter. That’s because the berries are low in protein and fat amounts, so the birds choose them in later months after all the richer favorites are gone. Great antioxidant sources, the berries have edible value for humans (but definitely need sweetening). These shrubs (4 to 8 feet tall) look best in small clusters rather than as single specimens. Native plants advocate and teacher Laurie Ousley recommends chokeberries as replacements for the non-native, invasive Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus).
3. Crabapples (Malus species)
These little trees are irresistible in garden centers in spring, but your choices matter. All of them produce small rocklike apples that only soften after freezing periods, when the birds use them.
However, I learned from birder and naturalist Gerry Rising that some cultivars have such large, showy berries – for human aesthetics – that they are not very useful to birds whose beaks are too small to grasp them.
Some crabapples are unattractive for close-up viewing in summer, when the leaves get mottled with fungus disease (scab). Crabapples also drop the fruit onto your deck or driveway. Place these beautiful trees at a slight distance from your vantage points, where you can enjoy the glorious spring show as well as the birds all through the fall.
4. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Among the hollies (Ilex species), this one is irreplaceable for the beauty of the bright-red berries and for hungry birds later in winter. Clusters of the plants make the most impact, and remember that they are dioecious. That means that to get berries you must have one male for every six or more females. (Sorry, but the males are quite dull-looking; keep them in the background.) Read tags and ask nursery people which males are most helpful for which females.
5. Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa)
“I think the most interesting shrub that features berries this month is gray dogwood. It has eye-catching clusters of white berries (drupes, actually) on bright red stems,” said Molly Vendura, landscape architect and leader of the WNY Native Plants Collaborative.
“The cultivar ‘Muszam’ is more compact than the species and is a great choice for the home garden. As a bonus, gray dogwood is native, has clusters of white flowers in late spring, and the foliage is red-burgundy in fall,” she said.
6. American Cranberrybush Viburnum (Viburnum trilobum)
This viburnum, with great berries and red-orange fall color, is one of a huge plant family with great potential as specimens or hedges. Many consider viburnums the royal family of the shrub world for their elegance and extended show from spring flowers to colorful fruits to attractive fall foliage.
Lynda Schneekloth, professor, environmental educator and founder of WNY Native Plants Collaborative, recommends this native vine for use wherever people need to cover up an unattractive fence, wall or slope. It is vigorous, so put that tendency to work. It is tolerant of shade, offers scarlet foliage in autumn, as well as generous berries for birds. Similarly, wild grapevines are valuable where there is ample space. No chain-link fence should go without the right vine, carefully chosen.
This large genus includes trees from 15 to 50 feet tall. Most have great fall color, white spring flowers, silvery bark and showy fruit that is good for wildlife. Most are thorny, which may serve your hedge or fencing needs well, but the industry offers thornless choices such as the native hawthorn Crusader (Crataegus crus-galli var. inermis).
9. Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana, native to southeastern United States, and C. bodinieri from China)
A simply gorgeous, medium-sized shrub, Beautyberry produces clusters of magenta/purple berries in September.
Many other woody plants provide ecosystem services (such as berries and cover) for birds and other wildlife. When you go plant shopping, also consider shrubs and trees that produce fruit and berries in summer, such as elderberries, serviceberries and blueberries.
If your yard is lacking striking fall foliage, attractive bark and colorful berries, this is the time to do something about it. Look for shrubs and trees with those features now, and then plant them this month or next spring. Birds as well as human visitors will be grateful.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.