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Winter berries

Mother Nature has provided us with a blanket of beautiful white snow, but something breaking up that monotone color pallet is lingering winter berries from some of the trees, shrubs, and vines in our landscape.  Native trees, shrubs, and vines that commonly maintain 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.), Mountain Ash (Sorbus Americana), winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and High-bush Cranberry (Viburnum sp).  In addition, many introduced nursery industry plants also tend to hold berries into the winter months, such as the flowering crabs.

Many of the native tree, shrub, and vine species’ berries mature in late summer to early fall and disappear in part because of animal and bird consumption and dispersion. Even to wildlife some of these berries often are not desired until the fruit has had a hard frost or undergo freezing from the cold fall and winter temperatures, reducing the bitterness or acidity. Human consumption of most raw tree, shrub, and vine berries is not common because of the bitterness and concern of the toxicity, often in the seeds or pits of the berry.  Although many are too bitter and unsafe to consume whole as a raw berry, they do make delicious pies, wine, syrups, and jellies.  It is wise to have a good knowledge base and understanding for proper plant identification before consuming and caution must be used.

Even the more bitter berries will likely be consumed or dispersed by 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 berry’s bright showy colors actually are a natural attractant that in turn helps the bird preserve 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.

Winter months in Minnesota can get long and seem to carry on, fortunately many of our native plants, and even some of the introduced species can provide beautiful berries that persist into the winter months and provide a critical food source to our wildlife. If you don’t have any berry producing trees, shrubs, or vines, this is the perfect time to do your research and design a plan to incorporate one or more in your landscape come next summer.

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