Winter berries in the garden are a treat for gardeners craving color during these cold and rainy months, but more importantly for hungry birds.
Winter berries are filled with sugar and fat for birds, helping them to withstand freezing temperatures and sustain them during their migration.
Even as I write this, the shrubs and trees in my garden are filled with various birds feasting on the berries that are just now ripening (in particular, the toyon and dogwood.)
I consider my garden a re-fueling station for many of these birds, and it brightens my day to see them taking a break from their winter migration.
There are so many varieties of trees, shrubs, and vines that produce berries in the winter, but the following are some of my favorites I’ve used over the years.
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) zones 7-11
One of my favorite shrubs for winter berries is our native Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).
Not only do I appreciate that this large shrub (growing up to 20 feet!) is evergreen, but look how the bright red berries pop against the dark green foliage.
And when placed near the gray eucalyptus tree – heaven!
It’s clear I’m not the only one who adores toyon berries. Once they’ve hit their beauty’s peak, bluebirds and robins swoop in to strip the shrub within a few hours.
Ah well, it was beautiful while it lasted!
Symphoricarpos ‘Proud Berry’ (Snowberry) zones 3-7
Gaultheria procumbens (Wintergreen) zones 3-9
I have several wintergreens growing in my garden and have been amazed at how tough they are!
I have them planted at the bottom of my hill (where the water table is naturally high, providing the moisture they want.)
They’ve survived hot summer temps of 100+, a maurading squad of 17 turkeys, and hungry deer. Not a nibble or scorched leaf to be found!
Plus, the berries are edible and have a unique wintergreen taste.
Malus ‘Adam’ (Crabapple) zones 4-8
My mother’s ‘Adam’ crabapple tree is, hands-down, the most stunning variety I’ve ever seen.
This tree was in my mother’s previous garden (zone 8), and despite its showy red flowers and fiery fall foliage, it’s the red berries that would steal the show.
I particularly love the winter color echo created with the red crabapple berries and the nearby nandina’s red foliage and red berries.
Crataegus pinnatifida (Mountain Hawthorn) zones 5-9
This small to mid-sized tree has it all: compact size, stunning fall foliage, and vibrant winter berries.
Not only that, but once established, it’s fairly drought tolerant and survives with moderate water despite our hot and dry summers.
Pyracantha coccinea (Firethorn) zones 5-8
I always say the pyracantha is a shrub people love to hate, thanks to the lethal thorns it can produce.
But despite the painful side to it, I absolutely adore it. Almost as much as the cedar waxwings and robins do!
It not only provides a huge flush of little white flowers in the spring, it’s fast-growing and evergreen (making it a fantastic screening plant), and provides gorgeous winter berries.
In fact, if you’d like to read an amusing story about the chaos created by my pyracantha shrub, click here.
Cotoneaster dammeri (Bearberry) zones 5-8
The cotoneaster family is an indispensable group of plants for winter berries.
For a lower growing cotoneaster, consider the c. dammeri.
Growing to 8″‘x3’, I often plant this variety on hillsides or terraces as its thick, intertwining branches help control soil erosion, or gracefully cascade over a stone wall.
There’s many gorgeous varieties available, from ground covers to tall shrubs, just make sure they’re not categorized as invasive where you garden.
Viburnum opulus ‘Compactum’ (Cranberry Bush) zones 3-8
This is one of the most beautiful fall and winter viburnums ever, with stunning red foliage and vibrant cranberry-like berries.
It’s ideal for the middle of the border, growing to 5’x5′ in just a few seasons.
Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ (Variegated Red Twig Dogwood) zones 2-8
We have several Red Twig Dogwoods growing in our zone-6 garden at Lake Tahoe, and I don’t know what I love more; their fantastic variegated foliage or the blue-tinged berries.
I think the birds would definitely choose the berries!
Cornus florida ‘Cloud Nine’ zones 5-9
This is a dogwood that’s more adaptable to my zone 9 garden, able to thrive in our hot summers.
In the spring, it has lovely white flowers, followed by colorful fall foliage with shiny red berries that persist into winter.
Ilex verticillata (Winterberry Holly) zones 3-9
I originally discovered this at the Little Island garden in New York (click here to see how fantastic this garden looks in the fall!)
The internet says it needs moderate to moist conditions, but since I’ve had fantastic luck with the Golden Oakland Holly in my garden I’m on the hunt for this at a nursery.
You can read more about the Golden Holly, along with my other favorite December plants by clicking here.
Rhaphiolepis umbellata ‘Blueberry Muffin’ zones 7b-10
I’m always amazed how tough this shrub is, looking glorious throughout the summer in full sun with not a single scorched leaf. Requiring very little water, no less!
The deer will occasionally nibble it, especially when they spot these delicious berries.
But luckily, most of the birds get to the berries first.
Sarcococca rustifolia (Sweet Box) zones 7-9
Whenever possible, I like to plant a sweet box near a client’s front door, where its delightful winter fragrance can be appreciated up close.
Myrica californica (Pacifica Wax Myrtle) zones 6-11
Myrtle is an unsung hero in the garden and, in my opinion, isn’t used nearly enough! It’s tough as nails, provides flowers and winter berries, has a delicate appearance, and fits in with almost any garden style.
I love how the myrtle was used here instead of boxwood, creating a formal hedge in an informal garden here at Pasadena’s Arlington Garden.
Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon Grape) zones 5-9
Mahonias are a diverse group of shrubs, ranging from low-growing mounding plants to tall, upright focal points. Some have prickly leaves, some have soft and feathery foliage (thinking of you ‘Soft Caress!)
Most have yellow flowers in late autumn, followed by dark blue berries in the winter that birds adore.
For a great article about the Oregon Grape (and why it’s neither specific to Oregon nor a grape), click here.
Phew – what a long post!
I realize I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to winter berries.
I’d love to know what berries bring the birds to your garden?