If spring is a time for flowers, then fall is the time to enjoy the resulting fruit, an enjoyment that can be shared by gardeners and birds alike.
As days grow shorter, birds are busy storing up energy either to migrate or to survive the winter. By selecting shrubs and trees that produce late summer fruit, the gardener gets to enjoy not just the fruit, but the birds attracted to the garden to feast.
It’s hard to think of one genus of plants that offers more fruit for wildlife than the dogwoods. The fruit of cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas) ripen in late summer. The tart, cherry-like fruit is edible for people as well as birds, although the flavor is quite pungent even when made into jam or jelly.
As the fruit turns from bright red to crimson, some of the tartness disappears. The gardener has to be quick, however, to reach the fruit before birds strip the tree.
The kousa or Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa) produces a large, showy fruit that is eaten by birds in autumn. The ripened fruit looks like a huge red raspberry hanging from a stalk along the tree’s branches. Our native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) produces red, shiny fruit in clusters at the end of branches in early autumn.
Flowering dogwood leaves often turn color early in the season as the fruit ripens, a phenomenon known as a foliar fruit flag. This flag sends out a clear signal to flying birds that ripe fruit is below; the birds in turn spread the tree’s seed, thus helping to ensure survival of the species.
Our native shrub dogwoods also produce fruit that is relished by birds in late summer. Gray, redosier and silky dogwoods are all shrub dogwoods, growing to about 10 feet high and wide. These shrubs bloom with white flower clusters in summer, then give way to blue or white fruit in late summer.
The fruit is high in fat content, thus providing a good food source for migrating birds.
Dogwoods are adaptable shrubs that will form large mass plantings given enough space, providing both food and habitat for birds. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, dogwoods provide an important food source for robins, bluebirds, thrushes, catbirds, vireos, kingbirds, juncos, cardinals, warblers, wild turkey and grouse.
Many members of the rose family provide food and habitat for birds and other wildlife. Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) is a native member of the rose family that produces fruit for both human and bird enjoyment, although the fruit ripens much earlier in the summer than that of dogwood.
Also known as shadbush or juneberry, serviceberry produces reddish fruit that ripens to bluish-black in June. The ripe fruit tastes like blueberries, and is useful in cooking if you can beat the birds to the tree.
Crab apples (Malus spp.) are usually planted for their lovely spring flower, but they also produce abundant food for wildlife. Oftentimes, birds will not feed on crab apples until they have frozen and thawed several times. In this way, crab apples provide a source of food in winter when other fruit is scarce.
According to experts at the University of Iowa, birds prefer fruit from ‘Snowdrift,’ ‘Indian Magic,’ ‘Profusion,’ ‘Adirondack,’ Harvest Gold, ‘Prairifire,’ and ‘Ormiston Roy,’ but they will not eat fruit from ‘Adams,’ ‘Donald Wyman,’ and Red Jewel.
A close look at a hawthorn flower in spring, and it’s easy to tell that this plant is also a member of the rose family. Red and vibrant in winter, hawthorn fruit is also favored by birds.
Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) and Winter King hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’) are two exceptional landscape hawthorns that bloom with white flowers in spring, then give way to red fruit that persists in winter.
Several shrubs in the rose family have much to offer birds. Rugosa roses are tough, carefree shrubs with very fragrant flowers that give way to large, persistent hips in late summer. Disease resistant and cold-tolerant, the rugosa’s many positive qualities have made it a choice plant in breeding programs. Birds aren’t choosy, however; they will eat the colorful hips of any rose, including the farmer’s nemesis, the multiflora rose.
Cotoneasters usually take a back seat to other shrubs because their flowers are small and frequently unnoticed. In late summer, however, the cotoneaster bursts forth with bright, show-stopping red fruit that demands attention. Try planting the cranberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus) for its persistent red fruit.
Chokeberry is another member of the rose family that produces fruit in fall. The red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) cultivar ‘Brilliantissima’ has vivid red leaves in fall to match the brilliant red fruit. Contrary to what is sometimes said about chokeberry fruit, it is palatable to birds; the plant often stripped clean of fruit before winter arrives.
Hollies are known for their berries, in particular the bright red berries of the American holly (Ilex opaca), set off by the plant’s dark, glossy leaves. Lesser-known are the winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata and hybrids), deciduous shrubs that explode with bright red fruit in winter.
Because this holly drops its leaves, there is nothing to obscure the berry display. As the fruit weathers, it becomes an important food source for wintering birds, including robins, waxwings and bluebirds. Keep in mind that hollies have separate male and female plants; berries are produced on the female. A compatible male should be planted in the landscape to ensure good fruit production.
Many species of native viburnum have fruit that is eaten by birds, including arrowwood, American cranberrybush and blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum dentatum, V. trilobum and V. prunifolium).
‘Winterthur’ viburnum (Viburnum nudum ‘Winterthur’) is quickly becoming a favorite landscape shrub for its glossy green leaves, creamy white flowers and red to purple fall fruit. All of these viburnums are suitable in mass plantings or at the back of the mixed border.
Birds also flock to the fruit of snowberry (Symphoricarpos spp.), beautyberry (Callicarpa spp.) and bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica).
Snowberry produces round white or pink fruit in fall on somewhat unruly plants that benefit from winter pruning. Beautyberries cover themselves with clusters of glossy purple berries along the stems in fall — a must for every garden. Bayberry provides a winter food source for the birds; tree swallows, catbirds, bluebirds and other wintering birds visit bayberry to eat the persistent blue-gray fruit.
With so many species to choose from, it’s clear that every garden can include an assortment of trees and shrubs that provide interest in the garden, as well as food for both resident and migrating birds. These kinds of plantings provide valuable habitat, and keep the garden vibrant and full of life throughout the year.
Denise Ellsworth directs the honeybee and native pollinator education program for the Ohio State University. If you have questions about caring for your garden, contact her at 330-263-3700 or click on the Ask Denise link on her blog at www.osugarden.com.