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21 November 2018

Don’t accept the commonplace: there’s a whole world of vibrant colour beyond the classic red berry

The almost universality of red berries makes those plants with berries of other colours especially valuable and appealing.

By Stefan Buczacki

Old wives have much to commend them; as do old husbands, and old partners of whatever gender. And with increasing age we expect from them an ever-expanding trove of accumulated wisdom. But it is when we take their tale-telling too seriously that I start to question their gardening credentials. And there is no more oft-quoted horticultural old wives’ tale than one that has been recited to me several times this autumn already.

There is unarguably a wonderful and bounteous crop of berries and fruits of all kinds on our garden shrubs and on hedgerows in the wider countryside. It presages, so the wise old wives affirm, a cold, hard winter because it is nature’s way of ensuring a good supply of food for wild birds and other creatures. Now the omnipresent, all-enveloping “nature” may be capable of many things, but it cannot foresee the future. I am sorry to gainsay the fortune-telling but a good crop of wild fruits simply means we had conditions in the spring and early summer favourable for pollination. The forthcoming winter is irrelevant.

None of this, however, is to ignore the value of berrying shrubs and small trees in extending visual appeal in the garden, long after flowers and leaves have gone. Most garden berries (and I am using the term “berry” in a general, non-specialist sense) are red: holly, hawthorn, roses and so on. The reasons for this are not clear, because colour perception among bird species is complex and varied, while mice and many other berry-eating mammals are colour-blind. But the almost universality of red berries makes those plants with berries of other colours especially valuable and appealing. I have a soft spot for Ilex aquifolium “Bacciflava”, the yellow-berried holly, and although it is no substitute for the red-fruited forms in Christmas decorations, it does make a striking contrast in a shrubbery. From my study window I can see another excellent yellow-berried small tree in Cotoneaster “Rothschildianus”, such a refreshing change from the multitude of its red-berried relatives. Not far away is a small group of yellow and golden-berried pyracanthas; albeit with the drawback they share with some other pyracantha varieties in a greater or lesser susceptibility to disfiguring scab disease, and in possessing some of the most antisocial of thorns. Pruning pyracanthas is never for the faint-hearted.

Distinctly more unusual in having bright blue berries with a surrounding red calyx is Clerodendrum trichotomum, an elegant, under-appreciated tree, which is sometimes described as the glory tree or the white tree jasmine.

The moral of all this is not to accept the commonplace: a visit to your local garden centre at this season will reveal a treasure of unexpected and colourful delights.

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But finally, an opportunity to torpedo another bit of old-wifely pseudo-wisdom. I have recently noticed a large number of ladybirds around the house, evidently seeking somewhere to hibernate. I hope they manage it and survive in large numbers; not least because old wives tell us we need a hard, frosty winter to kill garden pests and so help ensure better crops next year. It is an appealing notion, but unfortunately it overlooks the fact that the hard winter needed to kill off the pests will also kill off large numbers of beneficial predatory creatures, such as ladybirds and hoverflies, that are so important in keeping everything in balance. 

This article appears in the 21 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis