Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Urban Garden: Merry Berries

The Urban Garden: December's Merry Berries
As we creep deeper into winter and find ourselves in the midst of the holiday season, I hear people begin to “buzz” about the beautiful “hollies” that adorn our neighborhoods and hillsides.  As beautiful as these bright-berried specimens may be, 9 times out of 10, you are probably laying your eyes on another species entirely. Along with holly (Ilex sp.), winter reveals the ravishing red berries of Toyon (Heteromeles sp.) and the Firethorn (Pyracantha sp.). Though similar at a glance, a closer look will reveal the truly unique qualities that make each of these species an attractive winter wonder-shrub!

A San Diego native, Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) also goes by the names Christmas Berry or California Holly.  This hardy shrub usually grows five to 10 feet tall and slightly less wide.  In it’s native setting, though, Toyon has been known to reach 25 feet! It’s dark evergreen lanceolate leaves are thick and glossy, with a serrated margin.  In early summer, Toyon boasts crisp white terminal clusters.  As autumn takes over, bright cherry red oval berries develop and persist through late January.  Like most berry producing plants, Toyon provides a valuable source of native food for birds in winter.

Originating in southern Europe and western Asia, Scarlett Firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) tends to be an invasive species in optimal conditions like our fair San Diego climate.    This bristly evergreen shrub ranges from six to 18 feet tall and has an equal spread.  Contrary to Toyon, Scarlett Firethorn’s leaves are linear and oblong in shape, with a rounded tip.  In addition, it lacks the serrated edges of Toyon.  In late spring, small clusters of white flowers often completely cover the stiff stems.  In early fall, the prolific flowers are replaced by orange-red, pea-sized berries.  Though not as valuable as the native Toyon berries, Scarlett Firethorn’s berries persist throughout winter, providing essential food to a variety of species.  Its strong stems provide small animals a place to perch, while long sharp thorns keep predators at bay.

The ever popular evergreen hollies are synonymous with winter beauty.  One particularly hardy and handsome cultivar used in San Diego is Blue Girl Holly (Ilex x meserveae ‘Blue Girl’.)  Once Blue Girl Holly is finished blooming, this brilliantly festive species displays a profusion of bright red clustered berries throughout fall and winter.  Since only female specimens bare the famous holly berry, make sure you have a Blue Boy Holly planted nearby.  Its characteristic glossy dark green leaf is lanceolate with a margin that is perforated with oppositely arranged sharp spines.  At six to eight feet tall and three to six feet wide, this medium-sized shrub tends to be compact, especially in a garden setting where maintenance regiments include the almighty hedge trim.  This dense form provides protection for small birds, while they nest and feed on Blue Girl Holly's delectable fruit.