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Winter berries provide a critical food source to wildlife

Mother Nature has provided us with a blanket of beautiful white snow, but breaking up that monotone color pallet are lingering winter berries from some of the trees, shrubs and vines in our landscape.

Red berries on bush covered in snow.
The red fruit of the winterberry shrub is a favorite of robins.

Berries attract wildlife

If you enjoy watching wildlife in the fall and winter months, consider planting trees, shrubs or vines that produce berries. Berries are an important food source for winter birds such as the black-capped chickadee, cedar waxwings and cardinals. The berries' bright showy colors naturally attract birds and help them conserve energy instead of foraging for other food sources. Some of these berries may even linger into the spring and returning birds such as robins will appreciate the treat.

Native trees, shrubs and vines that keep some of their berries into the winter months include American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens L.), wild grape (Vitis riparia), hawthorns (Crataegus sp.), black chokeberry (Aronia sp.), elderberry (Sambucus sp.), high-bush cranberry (Viburnum sp), mountain ash (Sorbus Americana), and winterberry (Ilex verticillata). Many nursery plants also tend to hold berries into the winter months, such as flowering crabs.

Many native berries mature in late summer to early fall and disappear, in part, because animals and birds eat and spread them. Wildlife won't eat some of these berries until after a hard frost or freezing, because the cold lowers the bitterness and acidity of the fruit. But, even the more bitter berries will likely be consumed or dispersed by wildlife.

They're good eating for people, too. But be careful.

People don't usually eat raw tree, shrub and vine berries because of their bitterness and concern about toxicity in the seeds or pits of the berry. Although many winter berries are too bitter and unsafe to consume whole as a raw berry, they do make delicious pies, wine, syrups and jellies. You should always use caution and make sure you've properly identified a plant before eating any part of it.

Winter months in Minnesota can get long and seem to carry on. Fortunately, many native plants and introduced species can provide beautiful berries that persist into the winter months and provide a critical food source for wildlife.

If you don’t have any berry producing plants in your yard or garden, this is the perfect time to do your research and plan to incorporate one or more in your landscape come next spring. 

Katie Drewitz is an Extension educator in Stearns County. She specializes in horticulture, small farms and local foods.

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