Gardeners, I suppose, are an optimistic lot, sometimes ignoring the obvious for years, or even a lifetime. There is ample evidence that I am a slow learner, with lessons too often requiring a decade or two, if they are ever to be learned. And, so it is with winter berries, or at least many berries that the gardener presumes must be vital to the survival of neighborhood birds, but often are consumed only in desperation nearing winter’s end. Or, not at all.
There seems no question that berries of the native dogwood (Cornus florida, above) are appreciated, since by mid December the clusters of red berries are long gone. Berries of the native, and large strawberry-like fruits of the Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa, below) rarely last more than a few weeks past ripening, though it is not unusual to find a few ripened fruits on the ground beneath the trees. While dogwood berries are often touted for their winter appeal, none linger in this garden much past the date when the foliage drops.
More abundant berries of nandinas (Nandina domestica, above) and hollies (Ilex koehneana, below) persist through the winter and often into early spring before dropping, mostly ignored by birds until there is little other nourishment available. Even then, most berries remain uneaten. Certainly, the gardener expects he has done a good deed planting to supply wildlife with winter sustenance, but disappointingly, birds tastes are more discriminating so that many berries are more for ornament than as a food source for wildlife.
Nandina’s berries are mildly toxic so that they are not recommended for a wildlife garden, but I’ve seen that few birds are tempted by the large clusters, even late in the winter. For this reason nandina seedlings are unlikely to stray much further than a seed can fall and roll, so I’ve seen little opportunity for this shrub to spread.
Seedlings of the spring flowering leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, above) are occasionally found a distance from the evergreen shrubs. The grape-like fruits that follow its flowers look tasty, and birds strip them quickly once they are ripe. The winter flowering ‘Winter Sun’ (Mahonia x intermedia ‘Winter Sun’) bears fruit only when warmer temperatures in late November and December encourage pollinators to get out and about, so the small fruits are rarely displayed.