Winter doesn’t have to mean a barren and bare garden, nature has provided beautiful, colourful plants to delight the senses and provide sustenance at every time of year.
In the first of our series on creating interest in an Oxfordshire garden in Winter, we take a look at those jewels of the colder months – fruits and berries.
The colourful display put on by foliage at autumn’s arrival is nearly over, deciduous plants have been stripped by the season’s blustery gales, summer annuals have disappeared and gardeners are pruning back and mulching, all of which might have left things looking a little stark. If autumn garden maintenance has revealed some gaps in your garden or left it looking somewhat dull, fear not! Our guide to winter garden berries will help to keep your garden a bountiful, riot of colour through the colder months.
Colour & Scent
1. Christmas Box or Sweet Box (Sarcococca confusa)
Unusually this shade-loving shrub offers up a vanilla-honey fragrance with wispy ivory flowers in winter through to spring. The blooms give way to shiny plump berries in the summer, but we’ve included it here as the berries frequently persist through the winter, often giving you flowers and berries all at the same time. Sweet Box likes moist, though well-drained, humus-rich soil and will tolerate neglect, making it an easygoing all-rounder in Oxfordshire gardens.
2. Beautyberry (Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii)
It’s not called ‘Beautyberry’ for nothing. Happy in sun or partial shade, though it’s worth noting that you’ll need to plant more than one to ensure pollination and therefore, fruiting. Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii has possibly the most eye-catching fruits of all shrubs with vivid violet berries appearing in autumn, following the summer bloom of tiny lilac or pink flowers. Some callicarpa are evergreen while others are deciduous, yet even the foliage joins in the show, with leaves appearing purply-bronze in spring, green in summer and rosy-pink as they fade through the autumn. What a stunner!
3. Farges harlequin glorybower (Clerodendrum trichotomum var. fargesii)
One heck of a name for an equally startling plant. It’s pinky-white almost jasmine-like flowers are highly scented, but they are just the precursor to the main event. Glorybower’s extraordinary fruits appear in autumn as bright blue berries surrounded by magenta lobes. A vigorous, deciduous shrub, it can grow up to 8m in height and width, so is an excellent spacer-filler. It will do well in almost any soil, so long as it’s moist, but it does enjoy a little shade and shelter.
4. David viburnum (Viburnum davidii)
Evergreen with a low spreading habit, viburnum davidii is ideal in garden design if you’re looking for low maintenance ground cover under roses or naturally leggy shrubs. Clusters of small, white unassuming flowers blossom in spring and develop into phenomenal, almost preternatural berries of the rarest of shades found in the plant world, turning from turquoise to dark teal over the course of autumn and winter. Plant at least 3 for cross-pollination and in full sun for maximum fruits.
5. Common Holly (Ilex Aquifolium)
Surely no plant better represents winter than the Common Holly with its spiky green leaves and brilliant red berries, but not all Holly’s adhere to this classic Christmas look. There are some unusual and interesting varieties out there to pique your interest, though nearly all grow best on well-drained soil and prefer sunny or partially shady positions. Holly’s, in general, have small, white flowers in spring, but berries are only produced on female plants, so make sure you pick the right gender if you want to see it’s glorious fruits.
‘Pyramidalis Fructu Luteo’ – Has abundant bright yellow berries.
‘Handsworth New Silver’ – Young shoots are purple and it’s creamy-white variegated leaves give an overall silvery look when viewed at a distance.
‘Amber’ – Gorgeous coppery-apricot berries.
‘Elegantissima’ – Variegated leaves are tinged with pink when young.
‘J.C. van Tol’ – Bright red berries against dark green foliage, however, the difference here is that its leaves are spineless, giving you that warm festive feeling without the prickles.
6. Sorbus aucuparia (Mountain Ash or Rowan)
Much loved and revered since ancient times, this native tree has long been thought to guard homes against evil spirits.
In spring it bears dense clusters of creamy-white flowers, which, as autumn rolls around, produce a bounty of red berries that last right through to late-winter. A much-needed shot of colour in the depths of what can be a gloomy, somewhat monotonous time of year.
The fruits were at one time widely eaten across northern Europe, being made into jellies, wines, compotes and chutneys, and are high in vitamin C, however we don’t recommend you try eating them unless you know exactly which variety you have, as they can be very bitter.
It’s unique, delicate compound leaves are vibrant green and lend a feathery appearance to this slender, though bushy-crowned tree. The foliage turns shades of crimson, russet and auburn.
Sorbus is a hardy specimen, hence its other moniker – Mountain Ash. It’s quite at home at elevations up to 2000m.
The tallest specimen stands in the Chiltern Hills and is 28m tall!
Prefer something a little different? Try Sorbus hupehensis ‘Pink Pagoda’. It has gorgeous pink berries set against blue-green foliage. Or how about Sorbus cashmiriana, whose pinkish-white flowers bring forth pearly-white berries.
7. Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)
A native British shrub often found naturally growing along the coastline, Sea Buckthorn is packed full with vitamins C, A and E. Deciduous silver-green narrow leaves with yellow flowers in spring, followed by orange berries through winter, this super-fruit is highly adaptable, tolerant of poor soil and exposure. You will need to give it plenty of sun and plant both male and female plants for pollination though. The berries are rather sour eaten raw but juiced and sweetened with honey or sugar they have a fresh fruity, citrusy taste and can be used to make everything from mousses to jellies.
8. Chilean Guava (Ugni molinae)
A very pretty berry indeed and a rarity amongst berries as its pale pink flower is equally pretty. Reputedly Queen Victoria’s favourite fruit and we can see why for this delicious delight tastes like strawberry and kiwi. Whilst not particularly well-known here, they are common ‘down under’ where they are known as ‘Tazziberries’. Their popularity is on the rise though with exponents like James Wong, who recently developed a British-bred variety called Ka Pow. The Chilean Guava is a small-leaved evergreen with pale-pink and white bell-shaped flowers in spring which transform into pink blueberry-like fruits, ripening to a deep, dark wine colour in winter. Hardy down to -10 and tolerant of most soils, they like a lot of light and shelter but will tolerate a little shade. Think of them as growing in ‘edge of the wood’ environments and you’ll have the right conditions in mind.
9. Goji Berries (Lycium barbarum)
You might think that these exotic darlings of the health food industry would be difficult to grow, but in fact, they are really quite easy, once they are at least 12 months old. Seedlings need to be kept warm for the first year and are prone to rotting in compost, so you’re better off buying young plants. Once over a year old they are hardy and will begin producing fruit in their 2nd year with heavy yields from year 4. Goji berries will grow in almost any kind of soil and are surprisingly drought-tolerant. They’ll also do reasonably well in partial shade, though will yield more berries in full sun.
10. Common Myrtle (Myrtus communis)
A traditional favourite of brides, especially in the Victorian era, as it represented purity and love in the language of flowers. Myrtle is an evergreen shrub or small tree with aromatic leaves often used to flavour pork or game dishes and star-like cupped white flowers which are followed by dark purplish berries. Being a native of the Mediterranean, myrtus needs long, hot summers to encourage it to fruit and whilst it likes to be kept moist, it must also be well-drained and sheltered. The berries have notes of juniper, rosemary and spice and when combined with apples make a dark, fragrant jam. They also make a rather tasty liqueur.
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