By Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus, UVM
Shrubs with red berries come in handy this time of year for use in holiday decorations and arrangements, for feeding wildlife, and for brightening landscapes. Although the well-known American and Chinese hollies can’t be grown in many cold northern climates, other fine red-berried shrubs are suitable and hardy. Unless noted, these are hardy to at least USDA zone 4 (-20 to -30 degrees F average annual minimum).
The winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a native and deciduous (loses its leaves in winter) shrub. It is related to the evergreen hollies, only much hardier. With its brilliant small and shiny red berries it is spotted quickly in wet areas in fall, even at high speeds along interstates. Reaching heights of 6 to 8 feet, winterberry grows well in sun or shade, wet or dry soil.
Like the other hollies, the sexes are on separate plants. If you want berries, you’ll need a female plant and a male plant (no berries) for pollination. Even then you may not see many berries before the birds get to them. Over 40 species of birds eat their berries, including bluebirds, cedar waxwings, brown thrashers, mockingbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and robins.
Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is easy to grow and tolerates many soil types. In addition to the red berries, the shiny green leaves turn reddish-purple in fall. Birds will eat the berries, but reluctantly as they are tart. This makes them good for jams and jellies though.
If you want a less known but attractive native shrub, try the spicebush (Lindera benzoin). When crushed, leaves are spicy and the red fall fruits peppery. Berries stand out against the light yellow fall leaves, and arise from the bright yellow flowers that appear in spring before the leaves. It is marginally hardy to zone 4, thriving in moist soil and partly shaded woodlands.
Hawthorns (Crataegus) are small trees (15 to 25 feet tall) with attractive red fall fruits, but most have some drawbacks—namely lots of diseases and long, dangerous thorns. Exceptions, and among the best choices with few thorns and good disease resistance, include ‘Crimson Cloud’ English hawthorn (C. laevigata), Princeton Sentry Washington hawthorn (C. phaenophyrum), and ‘Winter King’ green hawthorn (C. viridis).
A group of low shrubs up to 2 feet high, good for groundcovers on slopes and rock gardens, is the cotoneasters. Some of the best red fall fruits are from the cranberry cotoneaster (C. apiculatus) and related creeping cotoneaster (C. adpressus), rock spray cotoneaster (C. horizontalis), and the spreading cotoneaster (C. divaricatus). All have small, shiny green leaves and pinkish-white flowers attractive to bees early in the season. The rock spray and spreading cotoneasters are less hardy (zone 5).
Bunchberry and bearberry
Even lower groundcovers with red berries are the bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) and the bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). Both are very hardy to USDA zone 3 (-30 to -40 degrees F). The bunchberry also has attractive red leaves in fall, and edible fruits. This native plant needs acidic and organic soils. Another low native for similar soils, and needing plenty of moisture, is a red berry that all know—the cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon).
The bearberry is a tough evergreen, tolerating bogs to dry sandy areas, alkaline to acidic soils, and prefers infertile soils. Don’t confuse bearberry with barberry—a shrub usually seen on older lists but no longer recommended. Barberry is listed as an invasive plant in many states as birds spread its colorful red fruits to natural areas where they germinate and end up crowding out more desirable native plants.
Photo courtesy of UVM Extenxion
Red chokeberry is easy to grow in this climate, and makes for colorful landscape.