Several years ago I was working my way through the gardening section of my local book shop when I came across an old book by Frank Kingdon-Ward. The dust jacket was torn but the pages in good condition, and for £3.95 who could say no? I think this is a ‘second’ or ‘popular’ edition, so probably published either in 1954 or 1955. Kingdon-Ward was a prolific and excellent writer, writing with great enthusiasm about his great passions, plants and exploration. I think part of his success was that he wrote at a level we can all enjoy; plenty of detail but also a friendly, ‘human’ style of writing. These are books to inspire and delight, not heavy academic tomes.
I’ve recently been going through my book collection again and moving things around, and it was during this grand operation that I came across the book again. Flicking through its pages, reading Kingdon-Ward’s excited accounts of species both familiar and obscure got me thinking; I take a lot of photographs so why not share a few of my favourites? So here we go…
Kingdon-Ward allowed himself a degree of botanical licence when it came to what he called a ‘berry’. Botanically the ‘berry’ is a specific type of ‘fruit’, along with ‘pomes’ (like the fruits of Malus), drupes (like plums and other stone fruits), legumes (peas, beans etc) and so on. In layman’s terms the fruits of Ilex, Cotoneaster etc are all ‘berries’; for ease the book refers to the berries in the loosest sense! Who am I to argue with Kingdon-Ward?!
Whatever they are called, these fruits are a real treat in the autumn garden. As summer slips into autumn we see the result of all that spring blossom, here to give us more colour and interest. The beauty of these autumn fruits is that they tend to be more weatherproof- good news as it’s raining! By choosing trees and shrubs wisely it should be easy to keep the autumn display vibrant.
I’d like to start with one of the most universally recognised genera in British gardens, the Cotoneaster. For too long these usually tough and resilient shrubs have been condemned to a life of bland servitude, greening bland car parks around offices and shopping centres everywhere. Many Cotoneasters are victims of their own success, being resilient enough to grow and thrive in a wide range of environments. Chief among these stalwarts is Cotoneaster horizontalis, a fine deciduous species introduced to Europe from China by Armand David in 1870. In spring this species bears masses of flowers and is typically seen covered in bees, and then in autumn the branches are clothed with small red fruits that seem to last well. During the winter the flat branches take on the look of fish skeletons, and are particularly fine when picked out in silver frost.
Staying in the genus Cotoneaster but at the other end of the scale, as it were, is Cotoneaster bullatus. This species, also Chinese, was introduced around the beginning of the 20th century, and is so tough that it has become a bit of an underrated utility shrub. More tree-like than C. horizontalis, C. bullatus will take very harsh winds and poor conditions. Nonetheless this is a handsome plant worth of a place in any self-respecting plant collection, where its profuse flowers, shiny leaves followed by excellent autumn colour, and bright red fruits will provide ample interest.
Sticking with resilient plants with red fruits, Crataegus x persimilis (syn. C. prunifolia) is a spectacular tree! Its viciously armed branches are laden with fruits that remind me of miniature rose hips for some reason. During the autumn the leaves go butter yellow, making a stunning contrast with the red fruits. Interestingly C. x persimilis is a hybrid between C. crus-galli and C. succulenta, and appears both in the wild and in cultivation.
If being ripped to shreds by the thorns of Crataegus x persimilis doesn’t appeal to you, and if you have the patience to track down a less well known plant, try growing Photinia villosa. This species is a world away from the commonly seen Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’, and all the other novelty variegated Photinias; P. villosa is an attractive, deciduous small tree. As with the Crataegus above, the contrast between the yellowing leaves and the red fruits is superb, but the big advantage is the lack of thorns!
In a small space it’s important to use multi-season trees, but if you’ve only got space for one or two large shrubs or small trees it’s important to choose wisely. The deciduous Euonymus species are simply not seen often enough in gardens. Despite their relative scarcity they are often excellent plants, particularly for autumn interest. Take, for example, Euonymus planipes…
As the fruits of Euonymus planipes swell they take on a cherry red colour which is enhanced by the typically pale autumn colour of the species. As the seeds mature the fleshy capsules split open, revealing the small bright orange seeds hanging underneath. Even after the seeds have dropped the capsules persist, ensuring plenty of interest for the curious gardener.
For those who really enjoy the thrill of growing something special I must recommend Euonymus europaeus forma albus. This is the rare and illusive white-fruited form of the European ‘Spindle Tree’!
Similarly rare, by reason of fashion, is the plain green form of Cornus controversa. The variegated form is mass produced but too few nurseries bother to produce the green- everyone wants the variegated. Arguably the finest form of the green is C. c. ‘Pagoda’, which grows strongly upwards (much more so than the variegated) and as far as I can tell has much better defined tiered branches. On a trip to Coleton Fishacre, a garden in Devon, UK, I was face to face with what I’m confident is the fruits of this magnificent species!
Few gardeners get the opportunity to grow the big Cornus species, but the smaller ‘stem dogwoods’ are quite widely grown. Cornus alba is mainly grown, as one of its cultivars, for its red stems in winter, but the species is named for its white fruits. These only appear on plants of a more shrubby habit, instead of those pruned back hard for their stems, and even then aren’t all that commonly seen in the UK.
While the coloured stemmed Cornus look great in winter, Aronias are fairly bland for much of the year. In winter they’re just bare shrubs, in spring they’re green with fairly uninteresting white flowers, in summer they’re green, but then in autumn they’re spectacular! First to arrive are the berries; on most of the forms that I know there are black and very showy; great until the birds arrive- I’ve seen a whole mature Aronia picked clean in around 30 minutes before! At least the autumn colour is excellent, with shades of flame yellow and orange.
It wouldn’t be right to talk about autumn fruits without mentioning rose hips. The down side to the modern perpetually flowering roses is that they’re still in flower during the autumn, denying the gardener the joy of rose hips. These bright orange fruits are very showy, and usually last until they are either hit by exceptionally cold weather or the birds eat them. The biggest and showiest hips are arguably those of Rosa rugosa.
The chances of any British bird being able to eat a whole Rosa rugosa hip in one go are slim, but it’s not uncommon to see birds pecking bits off the hips, and over a period of time even quite small birds will demolish whole rose hips. Rather smaller and more subtle, but still beautiful, is Rosa glauca, a nice species with a blue tinge to the leaves. The hips of this species are beautiful as the blue leaves turn yellow in autumn.
For my final species of this post (but I might do another post…!) I’d like to show one of the most distinctive of autumn fruiting plants that are grown in the UK, Callicarpa ‘Profusion’. These strange metallic purple fruits don’t look real, but I assure you they are, and moreover they persist well into winter when the leaves have dropped completely. With berries like these you can see how this plant earned the common name ‘Beauty Bush’!
Callicarpas used to be a real challenge to get into fruit, but thankfully the partly self-fertile C. ‘Profusion’ came to the rescue! Even though, if you want a good show of fruits it’s better to have more than one in your garden…
I hope you’ve enjoyed what I’m confident will end up being part one of Berried Treasures!